‘Battle of 33’ matches unbeaten Mendota, Firebaugh football teams

A yellow crop-duster could be seen this week swooping down on one side of Highway 33, then the other, spraying cotton before rising and turning toward Mendota to the south, then Firebaugh to the north and repeating the routine over and over.

It was as if the pilot was connecting the communities separated by eight miles on this highway – and oh how fitting.

These tiny Fresno County westside towns will converge Friday night at Mendota’s Aztec Stadium, when their unbeaten high school football teams play in a classic duel. Kickoff for the West Sierra League showdown is 7:30 p.m.; it might rain on the synthetic surface, and so what?

The annual “Battle of 33” could shovel 5,000 fans into the 3,000-seat venue to see teams with 6-0 records and ranked Nos. 1 (Mendota) and 2 (Firebaugh) in the Central Section’s Division V. And no surprise if a sequel matches them again for the division title Dec. 2.

Simply, this is when a $6 ticket is priceless, even in one of the most impoverished regions of the Central Valley and state.

“Hey,” says Mendota coach Beto Mejia, “this is a great rivalry among small communities that brings a lot of people together. I’ve been Firebaugh’s biggest fan for the first six games.”

This is a great rivalry among small communities that brings a lot of people together.

Mendota coach Beto Mejia

He was, but is no more in a game that likely will decide the WSL championship along with the top seed for the D-V playoffs.

He was, because he long anticipated the potential of unbeatens on this stage in mid-October.

He always has been because the Mendota graduate appreciates the tradition of a 19-year series with built-in emotion.

And this game carries more, only with tragedy.

Danny Amaral Jr., a 2014 Mendota graduate and popular player who was quoted in the ESPN documentary, “MENDOTA,” in February of that year, was killed in a motorcycle accident last week on Whitesbridge Avenue west of Kerman and was buried Wednesday.

Amaral wore jersey No. 1, and he was just that in the heart of Mejia, who said at a season-ending banquet in 2013: “If my son, Isaiah, becomes half of Danny I will be a proud dad.”

Amaral, who was 20, will be honored with a moment of silence before Friday’s game.

In the ESPN documentary – a moving piece that featured Mendota’s odds-beating, powerful football program largely driven by sons of Mexican immigrants – Amaral spoke of the day-to-day uncertainty of his family having enough food for dinner.

About 95 percent of Mendota’s 845 students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.

“Want to talk about a kid who worked hard, Danny was it,” Mejia says. “He was humble, very caring and a genuine kid. I’m hurting, man. I’ve told the kids not to take things for granted because we don’t know when our time will come. That’s why you bust your ass in practice.”

The Aztecs have typically responded to Mejia’s charge, testament to his 49-11 (.817) six-year record, with two section titles and two runner-up finishes. They’ve won six of the past eight against Firebaugh while reducing the Eagles’ series lead to 11-8, according to section historian Bob Barnett.

Mendota delivered The Bee’s 2013 Player of the Year in Edgar Segura, the most prolific rusher in section history.

And the Aztecs have another POY candidate in Junior Cardenas, a senior quarterback with a three-year record of 24-9, 4,979 passing yards and 59 touchdowns. This season, he has completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,045 yards and 18 TDs against one interception.

His experience shows in that he hardly raises his voice about Friday’s showdown: “People try to make it a bigger game than it is. As quarterback and captain, I have to make sure everyone’s on the same page and go into it as just another game. Yes, it is a big game, but we’re not changing in any way the way we play.”

31-3 Combined touchdown passes and interceptions by quarterbacks Junior Cardenas (18-1) of Mendota and Noey Garcia (13-2) of Firebaugh

The Cardenas family is key to it.

Chuy Cardenas, Junior’s uncle, coordinates an offense averaging 38.8 points and 403.2 yards. It’s a diverse attack that can shift from a full-house backfield to a single-back, four-receiver set. It also features Julian Cardendas, Chuy’s son, who has six TD receptions. Fabian Jasso has seven.

Mendota’s defense has been powered by inside linebackers Justin Ruiz and Riley Lopez, and three-year cornerback Alfredo Ramirez, who leads the team with 19 tackles.

They’ll oppose a Firebaugh offense averaging 43.2 points and 406 yards, though largely against a non-league schedule considerably weaker than Mendota’s.

But there’s no denying the uptempo efficiency and balance of an Eagles offense coordinated by former Mendota coach Mike Daniel.

Firebaugh is averaging 184.8 yards passing behind Noey Garcia (1,054 yards, 13 TDs, two interceptions) and 221.2 yards rushing behind A.J. Molina (646 yards, 7.2 average per carry, four TDs).

The first-year head coach and defensive coordinator of a team with 18 sacks and 15 interceptions is Dejon Kelly, a former Clovis High and Fresno State offensive lineman.

In regard to rivalry games and large, passionate crowds, he’s been there both as a player and assistant (Central, Clovis North): “It’s like Clovis and Clovis West or Central and Clovis West. I don’t care if it’s D-I or D-V, it has that kind of feel. It will be chaotic, and I love it.”

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