With so much at stake tonight, the 76th Milk Can game between the Bullpups and Tigers is sure to be a classic.

For Hanford, the defending West Yosemite League champions are trying to win back-to-back league titles for the first time since the 1934-35 seasons — a span of 84 years. The only other time they accomplished the feat was 1923-24, according to Hanford athletic director Beau Hill.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” Hanford coach Josh Young said. “It hasn’t happened in a very, very long time in Hanford. We relish the opportunity to do that. We’re looking forward to it.”

At stake is also a perfect season. The Bullpups haven’t gone 10-0 since 1974. That’s a span of 45 years in case you were wondering.

During Young’s 13-year tenure, he’s come close twice. In 2014, the Bullpups were 9-0 until they ran into the Tigers and lost 24-13. They finished 12-1 that season and won the CIF Central Section Division III title.

History would repeat itself in 2015 when they lost to Lemoore 42-7 in the regular season finale. They went 14-1 and won the Division IV-AA state championship. Win or lose, success has always followed afterwards, but, of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to win.

“It’s been on the verge of doing this a couple times and we fell short before and obviously here we are,” Young said. “We have another opportunity to do it. It’s something that we’re very much aware of, but practicing and playing the best game of the year is what we’re really focused on. … All the accolades and all the goals will come with us playing great football on Friday night."

So here they are again with another chance at history. And here are the Tigers again trying to spoil the party. But it’s not going to be easy.

The Bullpups are currently 9-0 and 4-0 in the WYL. They’ve outscored league opponents 170-45 and, according to MaxPreps, have the leading rusher in Luttrell Young. The junior running back has 654 yards and eight touchdowns in four league games. The Bullpups are averaging 449.8 yards per game on offense.

Hanford star linebacker Tyler Mello, who has offers from Fresno State, San Diego State, Wyoming and more, is second in league with 38 tackles, while also providing crucial offense at the tight end position.

Mello was injured during the first quarter of last week’s game against Golden West when he fell on his shoulder after a tackle. Young called it a “little shoulder injury” and said he’s day-to-day. But chances are he’ll be playing.

He’s part of a defense that limited Redwood to their lowest point total (20) this season and limited El Diamante and Mt. Whitney to a combined nine points. They survived against Golden West on a missed last-second field goal, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Even with the scare, the 16 points the Trailblazers scored in that game were a season low.

“We’ve got to take care of the football and establish some rhythm on offense, not allow the big play on defense and try to play as mistake free as we can,” Young said. “A lot of times these rivalry games come down to big plays and we want to eliminate those as much as we can on defense and obviously try to create them on offense.”

The upstart Tigers are also playing for something big. They want a share of the league title and a win would give them just that.

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“After watching the film and starting our game plan yesterday [Monday] for Hanford, the kids are very upbeat and they’re excited,” Joshua Kloster said. “Win or lose, I think we’re going to have a good showing on Friday and it really feels like the kids have turned the corner and are ready to really compete.”

Lemoore enters the Milk Can game at 4-5 overall and 3-1 in league. The Tigers are on a three-game winning streak — the first time they’ve done that since 2015 — and are peaking at the right time after a 42-6 victory against Mt. Whitney last week.

They haven’t won the Milk Can since 2015 and lost the last three by a combined score of 98-27, including being shut out in 2016, but first-year Tigers coach Kloster said the team is confident after their recent winning streak.

“These guys are playing their best football right now that they’ve played all year long,” Kloster said. “It seems like every week we’ve gotten a little bit better and a little bit better even though we were losing games. … With a few of those losses it’s given them the strength to overcome and be able to put the emotions aside and be able to continue to focus on their goals.”

Kloster added that one of their goals this season was to either win the WYL or get a share of it. The Tigers are now in a position to do that just one season after going 0-5 in league and 2-8 overall.

“It’s a great accomplishment just for them to be in this game and playing for more than just the Milk Can,” Kloster said.

Lemoore started the season 1-5, but faced some tough opponents in their preseason like Tulare Western, Sanger and Tulare Union.

Tigers quarterback Justin Holaday has been a big part of the team’s recent success with 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last three games. Will Schalde and Chris Taylor have caught a majority of those touchdowns and been a duo threat at receiver.

The defense has bent but not broken in the last three weeks with guys like William Kloster and Koy Davis racking up double-digit tackles.

“It’s a whole different mindset and a whole different environment in this football game,” Kloster said. “I tell the kids we definitely want to start fast and finish strong, but there could be some situations where we can be on the bad side of the ropes and we’re just going to have to fight our way out.”

Last season, Lemoore trailed 14-6 entering the fourth quarter before eventually being blown out 42-6. Kloster hopes the team can keep the game close again and be in it when the final quarter rolls around.

“If we can have that knockout punch at the end, then we’re going to take that shot,” Kloster said.

The 76th Milk Can game is at the Neighbor Bowl tonight with kickoff at 7 p.m. Hanford leads the all-time series 40-33-2.

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Noe Garcia can be reached at (559) 583-2431 or ngarcia@hanfordsentinel.com. Follow Noe on Twitter at @noecarlosgarcia.

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