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HANFORD — After Hanford’s 38-26 victory over Tulare Western on Thursday, Hanford coach Josh Young said the Bullpups haven’t played their best football yet. That’s a scary thought.

Why?

Because the defense had four interceptions, the offense had two scores of 40 yards or more and the Bullpups ended the preseason 5-0 for the first time since 2015. If there are better days ahead for this team, they’ll be playing into December.

The game was a team win for sure, but it was the defense that shined when the Bullpups needed them most. In addition to the interceptions, the defense had two turnovers on downs and forced a safety after pressuring Mustangs quarterback Elijah Burrell into intentional grounding in the end zone.

“We let some stuff go over the top, but then we adjusted and they never got down,” Young said. “They just keep playing hard and that’s what we really expect out of them.”

With time winding down and the Mustangs driving for the tying score, Bullpups linebacker Trey Knight came up with the biggest defensive play of the night — the game-sealing interception with 1:20 to go.

“Right when they snapped the ball I read that they were going to throw a screen pass because that’s what they were getting on on the drive before,” Knight said. “He threw me the ball and I wasn’t thinking my hands just went up and I caught it.”

The Bullpups took over at their own 5-yard line in victory formation to end the game. Now they’ll enter West Yosemite League play undefeated and as the defending champions.

“The sky’s the limit,” Knight said. “We can do whatever we set our minds to and whatever we work for, so let’s just see what goes on and hopefully we can get that WYL again.”

Hanford won the WYL last season by going 5-0 with their closest game being a 28-26 victory over Mt. Whitney. Young, who never likes to get ahead of himself and when asked what this team is capable of, was quick to temper expectations.

“I think that they’re capable of having a great practice on Monday,” Young said. “That’s what I’m focused on. I want to be 1-0 in league. That’s it. And we’ll take one game a time.”

The Bullpups had a 30-13 lead at halftime, but struggled mightily on offense in the second half with only six points. The team had three interceptions, a lost fumble and was stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.

The offense found a spark when wide receiver Taryn Rubalcava took a short screen pass 78 yards for a touchdown to give the Bullpups a 36-20 lead in the fourth quarter.

“Just as soon as I saw the ball I just seen the vision I tried to take it that way,” Rubalcava said. “My teammate PJ [Martinez] blocked and helped as much as he can and that’s all I can ask for.”

It was his second touchdown of the night and came after the teams traded four interceptions in a span of 2:38 or seven plays in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t the only big play of the night for the senior.

In the first quarter, Rubalcava took a slant, made a defender miss and ran 45 yards for a touchdown. He followed up with a 58-yard catch in the second and took it all the way down to Tulare Western’s 1-yard line.

“I just seen open field again I seen our quarterback was in trouble so I tried to come up and help and do the best that I can,” Rubalcava said about finding space on his long catch.

Hanford quarterback Juaron Watts-brown snuck it in on the next play to take a 28-13 lead. Watts-brown had four touchdown passes and accounted for a total of five.

Hanford linebacker and, more recently, tight end Tyler Mello got the team going with two touchdown catches in the first half. A 9-yard score put the Bullpups on the board first and a 3-yard catch in the second quarter gave them a 20-6 lead.

The game was a potential preview of a playoff matchup with both Division II squads playing at a high level. Tulare Western was the No. 2 seed last season, while Hanford was the No. 5. The game was also revenge for the Bullpups after losing 35-7 to the Mustangs last season.

Hanford will face a struggling El Diamante (0-5) team next Friday on the road at 7:30 p.m.

Coming Soon: Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter

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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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