HANFORD — As the scoreboard hit zero, Hanford had finally done it. The 74th Milk Can game belonged to them.
They shook hands with Lemoore after a well-fought game and immediately sprinted toward the southeast end of the Neighbor Bowl to claim what was rightfully theirs — the Milk Can trophy.
“I’m just super happy for the kids. They deserved it, they played their hearts out tonight,” Hanford coach Josh Young said. “We’ve had a lot of tough games and fought a lot of adversity all year long and things just didn’t seem to go our way, but it definitely went our way tonight.”
After back-to-back losses of a combined nine points, the Bullpups (2-8, 2-4 WYL) had put together another 48 minutes of excellent football. They edged out Lemoore 29-21 to extend their series lead and claim the Milk Can for the second straight year. Hanford now leads the all-time series 39-33-2.
It was also senior night for the 15 seniors playing their last home game. They were honored before the game and walked out onto the field accompanied by their family members.
With so much on the line, Hanford came out focused and ready to play. After forcing a 3-and-out on Lemoore’s first possession, the Bullpups had great field position, taking over at their own 45-yard line.
Eight plays later, Hanford quarterback Juaron Watts-brown broke through into the end zone with a 1-yard touchdown to give his team the lead. The sophomore finished 5-of-9 for 91 yards passing and 78 yards rushing on a team-high 19 carries.
“We came into this week needing this win,” Watts-brown said. “It was a must-win. We worked hard all week in practice and we got it done. We did our jobs.”
The first quarter ended with Hanford leading 7-0, but it wouldn’t last long as Lemoore opened the second quarter in the middle of a 65-yard drive.
Running backs Damion Charleston and Brandon Hargrove were the workhorses for Lemoore on Friday night. The duo combined for 87 yards rushing on 21 carries. Hargrove scored the first of his two touchdowns from six yards out on third-and-goal to tie the game.
Traditionally, Hanford would falter and be start to have a letdown, but they were different this time around. They were hungry and determined to end on a good note.
“We just kept preaching to them, stay the course, big games like this are going to go back and forth, try to minimize the mistakes,” Young said. “We knew we were playing good defense we just had to eliminate some penalties and they were able to hold it down.”
One senior in particular who didn’t want to end his high school career on a bad note was two-way player Theron Dutra. The quarterback, linebacker and tight end put on a performance and went out with a bang.
Dutra capped a 10-play, 78-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge for the score and the 14-7 lead at halftime.
The Bullpups had played well and were moving the ball effectively. The varying personnel kept Lemoore off balance when it came to Hanford’s ground game. But one constant was a steady dose of running back Travone Houston who feasted on the gaps his line created for him. He finished with 149 yards on 18 carries and was a problem to tackle all game long.
Watts-brown was given the ball at the 49-yard line to open the second half, and he was not going to waste a good opportunity. In four plays, he rushed for 47 yards and moved the ball to the 2-yard line. Dutra took over from there and walked in untouched for the 20-7 lead after the missed extra point.
The fourth quarter was more of the same for Lemoore. They shot themselves in the foot a lot with turnovers, flags and miscommunication on the field.
“We’re killing ourselves if we don’t protect that football,” Lemoore coach Rene Asencio said. “We have to find a way to protect that football right now.”
Lemoore was backed up on its own 1-yard line and needed to punt on fourth down. In comes Dutra putting the exclamation point on his big night with the blocked punt and safety to increase his team’s lead to 22-7.
“This is my last game of football maybe ever,” Dutra said. “I’m trying to do my best I can to help my team win as I’ve always done and it worked.”
Dutra finished with two touchdowns, a sack, a blocked punt and nine tackles (six solo).
Lemoore did make things a bit interesting at the end when they put star wide receiver Jack Foote at quarterback, but their comeback bid ended when Hanford finally recovered the second onside kick and took a knee.
The Tigers (4-6, 3-3 WYL) still qualified for the CIF Central Section Division II playoffs and will have a road match against Dinuba (9-1, 5-0 CSL), the Central Sequoia League champions on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Hanford’s season is over, but the seniors were just more than eager to take pictures after their victory and last game. When reviewing the season, Young said the two victories did not reflect who they were. The adversity the team faced made them resilient and play harder than a lot of other teams Young added.
“Regardless of what the win-loss record was, they played like champions,” Young said.
For now, the coach was just happy that his seniors were able to go out with a win and said he’ll miss their leadership and football knowledge they brought every Friday night. He’ll miss them, but he knows they won’t be far.
“Once a Bullpup, always a Bullpup,” Young said. “They’ll be around.”