This is how you break in a precocious young quarterback heavy on upside and light on experience: Coach him up and surround him with game-breaking talent.
Improving by the week, Caden Voges continued to defy the spread-option learning curve Saturday afternoon, passing for a school-record 529 yards and six touchdowns, four to a jet aptly nicknamed “Wheels,” and upstart Sacramento High School beat Christian Brothers 48-38 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinal.
In front of an overflow crowd in a throwback setting – a grass surface surrounded by a dirt track on the campus of the second-oldest school west of the Mississippi – Voges offered a new-generation look in hardly performing like a sophomore.
His top target, Damen Wheeler, hardly performs like a prep receiver. Four times the slender senior pulled in Voges passes and broke free, untouched, on touchdown sprints. Wheeler totaled eight receptions for 380 yards with scoring plays of 99, 68, 67 and 68 yards in one of the most remarkable playoff efforts in section history.
Wheeler had an 85-yard touchdown catch – untouched –called back because of a penalty. Afterward, Voges, all shy grins and manners, shook hands from a stream of well-wishers. Nearby, the equally humble Wheeler shook hands and snapped photos with fans of all ages who came to see a show, and got one.
“It’s phenomenal, and we’re making history,” said Voges, who has passed for 4,139 yards and 47 touchdowns. “I’m getting better, still learning. Damen is a phenomenal athlete. Just get him the ball.”
Wheeler is the son of Damen Wheeler, The Bee’s 1995 Player of the Year out of Valley. The older Wheeler, now a Dragons assistant coach, was a 2,500-yard rusher whose 99-yard run against Grant in the 1995 playoffs shares a national record that can’t be broken. Now his son has a national-tying 99-yarder of his own.
“This game was for our school, our team, my dad, all of Oak Park,” said Wheeler, who has 1,840 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns.
For all the flash and flair provided by Voges and Wheeler, Lonny Powell supplies the grit and finishing hammer touch. The powerfully built junior plays fullback, linebacker, safety and on the defensive line. He had two sacks, and he iced the game with a 48-yard touchdown sprint with 1:09 to play to hold off the spirited effort of CBS quarterback Chris Guillen. The junior had four touchdown passes, including strikes of 20 and 17 yards to Brandon Thompson.
Soaking up the scene afterward with equal parts joy and exhaustion was Paul Doherty. The eighth-year Dragons coach had been waiting for a moment like this. Sacramento has made steady improvement but lost five successive playoff games over as many seasons, until now.
“Every year we kept getting better, and we were waiting for that surge,” Doherty said. “This is our surge: three playoff wins.”
Seeded fifth, Sacramento (11-2) now takes on No. 2 Manteca (12-1) in the title game Friday night at Lincoln High in Stockton.
The game attracted alumni in lettermen’s jackets from as far back as the early 1960s. Retired Sierra College coach Jeff Tisdel, a star quarterback at CBS 40 years ago who coached the Falcons to a 13-1 record and D-I section title 30 years ago, marveled at the progress of both programs.
CBS hadn’t won a playoff game since 1986 entering this postseason, and the Falcons were coming off a win at top-seeded American Canyon.
CBS (9-4) will graduate a host of program-turning seniors under coach George Petrissans, including versatile Hayden Jones, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound recruit who plays tight end, defensive end, linebacker, punter and kicker. He had a 62-yard punt that landed inside the 1-yard line, and he boomed a 44-yard field goal on the last play of the first half to give CBS a 17-14 lead.
For a podcast breakdown of the section semifinals and previews with predictions of the title games, go to ESPN1320.net.