Fresno State’s quarterback battle goes beyond training camp

Jake Haener (Monte Vista, left) and Ben Wooldridge (Foothill, right) shared similar career accomplishments in high school, such as leading their teams to the NCS championship finals. (Photos courtesy of Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

Junior Jake Haener and sophomore Ben Wooldridge have battled it out for the starting quarterback position all of training camp and a decision on the starter will come soon from first-year Fresno State head coach Kalen Deboer. 

And although these two Bay Area natives are playing together for the first time at the collegiate level, this isn’t the first time they’ve competed against each other.

The two have a history dating back to their high school days.

Both Bulldog quarterbacks battled it out under the Friday night lights on two different occasions. Haener — who originally committed to the University of Washington — played at Monte Vista in Danville, California, while Wooldridge suited up for Foothill High School in Pleasanton, California.

The schools are just 14 miles apart. Both teams were part of the East Bay Athletic League (EBAL), which is said by many to be one of the toughest leagues for football in the Bay Area.

Each quarterback had a win in that series, with the Foothill Falcons winning the matchup on Oct. 16, 2015, 35-27. The Monte Vista Mustangs won the following season, 35-16.

Haener threw for 568 yards and five touchdown passes in those two games, while Wooldridge had at least two touchdown passes, according to his Maxpreps and Hudl highlights.

The two share a lot of similarities from their high school careers. Both quarterbacks helped their teams reach the North Coast Section Division I finals. They also each had playoff victories over Antioch High School, who, at the time, had the No. 1 recruit in the nation, current Alabama running back Najee Harris. They both additionally were awarded EBAL honors, with Haener being named first-team All-EBAL his senior year and Wooldridge taking home the MVP award in 2017.

Coincidentally enough, the two were also the last quarterbacks for their long-tenured head coaches.

Craig Bergman was the head coach at Monte Vista for 20 years and said Haener was one of the best players he had in his tenure. Haener and the 2016 Monte Vista team were the first team to capture the NCS Division one championship in the Open Division era.

“Without him, we don’t have an offense,” Bergman said. “He’s such a smart football player. He made great decisions.”

Matt Sweeney spent 31 years as the Foothill High School head coach. He contemplated retiring after hitting his 30th anniversary but decided to go one more year to finish coaching Wooldridge, who was entering his senior year. That ended up being Wooldridge’s MVP season.

“Ben is arguably the best quarterback I coached at Foothill,” Sweeney said. “He is not a prima donna. He brings the whole thing to the team. He’s a great quarterback along with being smart and hardworking.”

Both coaches agree that these two former rivals now competing for the starting spot at a Division I school says a lot about the talent produced from the EBAL.

The two also played and worked out together at KTPrep, a popular 7on7 organization that has produced multiple college players.

“These kids are competitors to the highest degree which is the number one thing we try to influence in our program,” KT Prep Director of Player Personnel Julian Kenion said. “No matter who wins, the Bulldogs are getting a great player and leader at QB.”

The two East Bay natives participated in what could possibly be one of the most important weekends of their college career, as Fresno State had its first team scrimmage. Their performance there could have an effect on the starting position according to Deboer.

“They’ve both gelled really well with the receiving core,” Deboer said. “They’re on top of all their checks. They’ve been very consistent.”

Haener transferred last season from Washington after being beat for the Huskies’ starting job by Jacob Eason, who went on to be selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts.

He was forced to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. 

During his time at Washington, Haener saw limited time on the field, completing nine out of his 13 passing attempts for 107 yards and just one touchdown. He threw one interception, which was returned for a touchdown.

In August it was announced that legendary Fresno State quarterback Kevin Sweeney allowed Haener to wear his retired No. 9 for the upcoming season.

Wooldridge committed to Fresno State in 2017 but redshirted his freshman year. Last season as Jorge Reyna’s backup, he got to see the field on three occasions. 

He threw a 17-yard touchdown pass against the Nevada Wolfpack. He went four-for-six and threw for 30 yards last season.

The battle between the two will be decided later this week, but it’s been a close competition between the two according to Offensive Coordinator Ryan Grubb. 

“What we are looking for is production. When we say production, who has the ability to move the chains, take care of the football and at the same time threaten the defensive,” Grubb said at a news conference.

Grubb went on to say that both Haener and Wooldridge knew the expectations “right out the gate” and that they know if they are just going to be a game manager who plays conservatively, “they won’t be the guy.”

“Neither one of them has done that. We’ve pushed the ball down the field more than any time I’ve seen here at Fresno State,” Grubb said.

Fresno State will open the shortened 2020 season at Bulldog Stadium against Hawaii on Oct. 24.

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