CALIFORNIA Tonight in its postseason opener, it will be a pair of firsts for California and head coach Marty Albertson.
Not only will the Pintos open district play on the road for the first time under Albertson, they'll be facing Fair Grove for the first time in program history.
The No. 2 versus No. 7 matchup in Class 2 District 4 is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start.
California (2-7) will be in a decidedly underdog role against undefeated Fair Grove (9-0). It's a role the Pintos aren't too familiar with in recent history, yet they're hoping they can use the nothing-to-lose mentality to their full advantage.
"Hopefully they won't take us really seriously in their preparation," Albertson said. "You just hope a team like that takes you lightly, so that you can sneak up on them, get them down early and put the pressure back on them."
While the pressure is no doubt on the Eagles to protect not only their home field, but their spotless record as well, the overall talent of Fair Grove's offense will put plenty of pressure on the Pintos.
Quarterback Brayden Lumley and running backs Dalton Cloyd and Austin Fodge lead a senior-laden offense that has averaged 45.5 points per game this season.
Lumley also has a pair of receivers that pose a matchup nightmare for the Pintos in 6-foot-7 Evan Fullerton and 6-foot-5 Steven Huskey.
"They're very big up front and they're going to be a handful," Albertson said. "We have to not fall asleep in our pass coverage and hope to contain the run inside."
As has been the case for the last month, California will need to stop the big plays. In three straight losses to Southern Boone, Blair Oaks and School of the Osage, the Pintos have given up an average of 46.7 points, with most of those coming via an explosive play.
Knowing it will need to score plenty to keep up with Fair Grove, California looks to have an aggressive game plan tonight.
"I think we need to come out and throw the football," Albertson said. "Teams have moved the ball on them throwing it. They're pretty stout against the run, so I think we have to throw first and then hopefully that will open up the run later on."
After using a ground-and-pound offense for the first month of the season, California has had quarterback Jacob Wolken throw more of late. Wolken has thrown for two touchdowns in each of his past three games. On the season, the junior has 851 yards on 87-of-173 with eight touchdowns and 11 picks.
Much of the recent success through the air has been owed to an improved Pintos offensive line. Entering the season as a bit of a question mark, the line has come together nicely in both pass and run schemes.
"Our offensive line has done a lot better job opening holes," Albertson said. "Our ground game has come around the last couple weeks and we've done a better job blocking."
The biggest beneficiary of California's improved line has been running back Cory Friedmeyer, who has averaged 105.5 rushing yards per game the last two weeks, despite facing opponents who currently boast a combined 17-1 record.
While California's approach to big games this season has been to remain even-keel and prepare as if it were a normal week, it gets hard to ignore the enormity of a one-and-done scenario. When it comes to districts, one thing is clear — it's not just another game.
"The mindset is different because you know that if you lose, your season is over," Albertson said. "Coaching-wise, there's no use holding anything back. You might as well use everything you have to find something that works."
The California-Fair Grove winner will meet the winner of the game between Cole Camp and El Dorado Springs next week in the district semifinals. The other district games this week have Warsaw playing at Lamar and Versailles playing at Stockton.