HANFORD — A perfect season and dreams of a Central Section championship came to an abrupt end for the Bullpups at the Neighbor Bowl on Friday night.
Trailing by nine late in the fourth quarter, Hanford faced a fourth-and-1 from Tulare Western’s 18-yard line. Bullpups quarterback Juaron Watts-brown scrambled to his left and was headed for the end zone when the ball was punched out of his hands at the 2-yard line.
“I was just trying to make a play,” Watts-brown said. “It was supposed to be a QB sneak, but obviously they knew that, I bounced out and I had the ball a little too low and they punched it out.”
The turnover sealed Hanford’s fate as they lost 30-21 to Tulare Western in the CIF Central Section Division II semifinals.
It was the Bullpups’ first loss of the season and ended their streak of 11 wins in a row. The 21 points they scored were the second-fewest in a game this season after they scored 17 in a victory against Golden West on Oct. 25.
Hanford ends the season 11-1 overall and as the West Yosemite League champions with a perfect 5-0 record. The league title was their second consecutive one and marked the first time they did that since the 1934-35 seasons.
“I can’t enough of how proud I am of this team and our coaching staff and the town of Hanford for coming out and supporting us,” Hanford coach Josh Young said. “Bullpup football is strong and we’ll bounce back from this, but obviously right now it hurts.”
The Bullpups also went 10-0 in the regular season for the first time since 1974, as well as capturing back-to-back academic championships.
“It’s a special group of young men and they’re going to be successful in life because of the things that they’ve learned on the field and how they carry themselves on the field and I’m extremely proud of each and every one of them,” Josh Young said.
The Bullpups held a 21-6 lead at halftime, but were shut out over the final two quarters — the first time they failed to score in the second half in a game this year.
“We just came out and we were satisfied with what we had done,” Hanford running back Luttrell Young said. “They came out and capitalized and scored on us three times in a row and they finished off the game hard. We didn’t finish off hard.”
Watts-brown’s fumble was Hanford’s second costly mistake in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. Prior to the turnover, Tulare Western led 22-21 and faced a third-and-goal on the 9-yard line.
Mustangs quarterback Mikey Ficher floated a pass into the end zone under pressure and Bullpups defensive back Daylon Davis came down with the interception. The celebration only lasted a moment with the Bullpups being whistled for roughing the passer.
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With a fresh set of downs, Ficher eventually punched in a 3-yard touchdown on fourth down. Henry Williams scored the 2-point conversion to make it a two-possession game.
After leading by 15 at halftime, the Mustangs’ Rolondo Holmes took the opening handoff of the second half and went 67 yards for the touchdown. The 2-point conversion made it 21-14 and the momentum-changing play was something the Bullpups never recovered from.
“The first play of the half when they scored … that put momentum in their favor and we were never able to get it back,” Josh Young said. “It’s a game of momentum and it’s kind of uncharacteristic, but it happens when there’s an explosive play like that.”
Two possessions later, the Mustangs scored again on Williams’ 10-yard run to cap a 9-play, 72-yard drive.
“We just didn’t come out with the fire that we had the first half,” Watts-brown said. “They came out and wanted it more than we did and we couldn’t answer.”
The Bullpups started the game with a touchdown on their opening possession. Watts-brown who missed the quarterfinals game due to a shoulder injury, scrambled for 10 yards on the first offensive play.
Watts-brown finished 12-of-22 through the air for 189 yards and one touchdown. He also had a team-high 138 rushing yards.
The 11-play, 60-yard drive was capped off by Luttrell Young’s 1-yard touchdown run. He scored again on a 22-yard run in the second quarter and finished with 70 rushing yards.
“Everything was actually working,” Luttrell Young said about the first half. “We were doing good. Nobody was satisfied at first. We all came out ready to play.”
Matthew Pulido’s only catch of the game was a 7-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter to extend Hanford’s lead to 14-0. It was the first touchdown of the season for Pulido and only his second catch of the year. Taryn Rubalcava led all receivers with five catches for 50 yards.
The Mustangs scored in the second quarter on a 10-yard run by Ficher.
“I got to play with my brothers and we did a lot of things that we talked about our sophomore year when we first got pulled up, but we didn’t finish our job,” Watts-brown said. “I had a great time playing with my friends, great coaches — the best coaches I’ve ever had — and it was a fun season.”