BAKERSFIELD — Pittsburg coach Victor Galli gathered his team on the field at Bakersfield College’s Memorial Stadium on Saturday night as the country classic “The Streets of Bakersfield” blared through the scoreboard speakers.
At the southern end of the Central Valley, five hours from home, Galli’s team had just lost to Liberty-Bakersfield 35-7. The Pirates’ season was over. Liberty, not Pittsburg, hoisted the Northern California Division 1-A championship trophy. Liberty, not Pittsburg, would move on to play for the 1-A state title next weekend in Mission Viejo.
Galli told his players they lost to a good and well-coached team. He also told them that, collectively, they could have been a lot better.
“Learn from this,” Galli said.
Pittsburg didn’t have many opportunities to make the game tight Saturday. But the one that went awry unfolded in the final minutes of the first half.
Trailing by two touchdowns, the Pirates drove to the Liberty 1. On third-and-goal, Charles Brown Jr. fumbled and Liberty star Jason Oliver recovered the loose ball in the end zone.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the home team, playing before several thousand fans in the double-deck stadium that holds 20,000, drove 80 yards for another touchdown that made it 21-0 at halftime.
That was plenty of cushion for Liberty.
The Patriots (11-2) forced a three-and-out to open the second half and added two more touchdowns that widened the advantage to 35-0 with 9:45 left.
By rule, the remainder of the game was played with a running clock.
It wasn’t exactly how Pittsburg (9-3) envisioned their season coming to an end.
The Pirates, fresh off beating Clayton Valley Charter by two touchdowns for their first North Coast Section title in 30 years, arrived in Bakersfield on Friday.
They went through a walkthrough at Memorial Stadium, which is nothing like any venue Pittsburg played in this season. It opened in the 1960s at a time when junior college football drew thousands.
The Pirates were confident, given that Clayton Valley, the team they defeated last weekend for the NCS Division I title, edged Liberty in September.
But whatever happened to Liberty three months ago is long forgotten.
Oliver, whom 247Sports.com rates a three-star prospect, played like a five-star against Pittsburg.
The Liberty senior caught three passes from Carson Woods in the first half, all for touchdowns.
He had several dazzling punt returns and was tenacious in the defensive secondary, hustling to knock down a fourth-down pass near the sideline in the third quarter that could have moved the chains for Pittsburg.
“First and foremost, that was a damn good football team,” Galli said. “Very stout. We knew going in they were very well-coached and they don’t make a lot of mistakes. Quite honestly, when we had opportunities to make plays, we didn’t.
“We had a nice drive and it was going to make it 14-7. We turn the ball over there in the end zone. That was kind of a killer.”
Jaden Rashada returned at quarterback for Pittsburg after missing the Clayton Valley game because of a hamstring injury. The four-star junior wasn’t completely healed but practiced well enough to get the start.
He threw for 64 yards and ran for 11.
“I would say I was probably like 55-60 percent,” Rashada said. “I wasn’t supposed to play, but I was just wanting to be a soldier for my teammates.
“It was tough because I saw a lot of weak spots in their defense where I couldn’t use my legs. I just had to stay there. You did see the plays when I took off. I was kind of running 40 percent. Being a threat with your legs keeps the defense more honest.”
Liberty went ahead 7-0 on the final play of the first quarter when Woods threw a 6-yard strike to Oliver, who set up the drive with a 46-yard punt return down the sideline.
With Rashada also Pittsburg’s punter, the Pirates didn’t fare well in that area, either.
Another punt return by Oliver put Liberty at the Pittsburg 29. Two plays later, Woods fired a pass to Oliver on a slant over the middle that went for a 29-yard touchdown and a 14-0 advantage.
Woods’ 15-yard touchdown pass to Oliver with 13 seconds left before halftime made it 21-0.
Kai Green’s 51-yard run in the fourth quarter was Pittsburg’s only scoring highlight. It cut the margin to 35-7.
“Great game for them,” Galli said. “It wasn’t one of our better games. I don’t want it to take away from the wonderful season that we had. Our guys should hold their heads proud. We went a long way. We’re a good football program and a good team. Hopefully, we can build off this and make these guys hungry for next year.”