FOOTBALL: Gavilan, Hartnell play for first place Saturday

The biggest game involving a local team this weekend is happening out of town. And it isn’t on Friday night.

The Gavilan College football team, which will try to produce its first three-game winning streak in 15 years, plays for first place and the pole position for the stretch run toward a Coast Conference title Saturday night against rival Hartnell in Salinas.

To some it’s a flip in the script. Maybe a glitch in the norm. For Gavilan head coach Spencer Gilford, it’s right on cue.

“It’s what college football is all about,” Gilford said Thursday. “Last year we didn’t have that opportunity to play in a big game. We are seeing our hard work that we have put in come to a point to where we have a big game in front of us.”

After a convincing victory over Yuba in its season opener, Gavilan went on to lose its next five. But Gilford refused to let doom set in, knowing that a season isn’t defined by the nonconference slate.

“I’ve felt that we have had a shot against every team we’ve played,” Gilford said. “It just comes down to us being able to execute and take advantage of the opportunities that are in every game. It’s not like last year at all, in terms of our schedule and who we are as a program. Every game is winnable. It’s a matter of how focused we are and how determined we are to execute.”

The Rams’ start to conference hit turbulence against Monterey Peninsula. But Gilford’s group, which has collectively made it a goal to tag the 2012 season as a turnaround campaign and sever any ties with a disappointing 2011, played itself right back into the thick of the championship chase.

“This is what we wanted to see in getting our program back in the right direction,” Gavilan athletic director Ron Hannon said. “These guys understand the longevity of what they are doing and are starting to see the reward for all their hard work.”

Last week’s 44-20 drubbing of West Valley is marked in Gilford’s book as the closest to a complete effort his team has generated since Week 1.

“Even though we played a pretty complete game, we still haven’t put it all together,” Gilford said. “Our defense played poorly last week. Our offense and special teams was excellent.”

On defense, the Rams have yet to hold an opponent under 20 points, but have forced 20 turnovers, led by Jeff Smith’s five interceptions.

Gavilan’s offense, commanded by the conference’s top quarterback in yards per game (238) and touchdown passes (15), Omar Kharroub, and two wide receivers who also sit at the top of some statistical categories – Marcus Harrell (36 catches, 641 yards, six TDs) and Bobby Guyton (31 catches, 606 yards, seven TDs) – gained a season-high 526 yards. The ground attack has shown life in recent weeks as well with Donovan Weatherspoon and Edward Bernard.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but the one good thing about that is if we have a bad day we try to turn it around and pick ourselves up and get better in every facet,” Kharroub said. “When you go through a bunch of losses, of course it’s easy to break. But we got through it and put together back-to-back wins. Now we are feeling confident and think of ourselves as a good football team.”

The list of incentives leading into Saturday grows beyond the first-place possibility. The Rams (3-5 overall, 2-1 conference) have it a priority to get back the Dr. T.J. Owens Football Classic trophy – which is up for grabs each time these two programs converge. Gavilan last had the prize in 2010. They also have a chance to upend a ranked opponent in the No. 17 (Northern California) Panthers.

“This is not an easy opponent. They are favored for a reason. We are the underdog for a reason,” Gilford added. “But I have the confidence in my guys. If we put it all together and play a complete game, I will be very happy.”

Hartnell is 3-0 in conference and 5-3 overall. The Panthers have shut out two of three conference opponents – 27-0 over West Valley and 31-0 over San Jose – and boasts the best running back in the area in Deandre Mann.

“It’s a real challenge. They have a really good offense and a really good defense,” Gilford said. “We have seen some really good backs and he is right up there with them. He does a lot well.”

Mann has averaged 120 yards on the ground per outing to reach his season total of 963 yards, 328 of those coming in conference. Tack on, too, 14 touchdowns for an offense that puts up 27 points per game.

“It’s their rushing attack against our perceived weakness right now, which is stopping the run,” Gilford said. “We haven’t done that all year, and this would be a great game to get that done.”

A win Saturday plus another next week in the finale versus Cabrillo would equal the program’s first .500 season since 2004.

“The thing is, too, we have nothing to lose. We aren’t ranked. We aren’t favored to do anything. We were picked by some people to lose to West Valley,” Gilford said. “We are going to keep doing what we have been doing because that has allowed us to be successful.”

• Gavilan and Hartnell have split the last 10 meetings, 5-5.

• Game time is 6 p.m.

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