He won’t win a body beautiful competition any time soon with a physique more linebacker sturdy and stout than quarterback slim and sleek. He doesn’t throw the prettiest ball, either.
But what Tommy Arnold does possess for Elk Grove High School are the intangibles. He leads, and he competes, and his team is still standing.
Starting Friday night at his customary quarterback spot, then turning the momentum from his middle linebacker position and finally deciding matters from a fullback sprint, Arnold was the difference in a wild, wacky affair. The Thundering Herd downed host Rio Linda 22-14 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II thriller, showing tremendous resolve and guts against a team known to bury teams with power and pride.
“We didn’t want our season to end tonight, and we kept fighting,” said Arnold, out of breath and steam rising off his 5-foot-9, 205-pound body. “The seniors, we told the team at the half that we’d carry them. We did some different things, and it worked.”
Elk Grove (12-1) trailed 14-0 after Marcel Brown (185 yards rushing) rumbled for a 45-yard score and Leo Skattebo (59 yards) powered in for a 1-yard score. The Knights (11-2) were driving, seemingly ready to put some distance against the Herd, when Noah Letuligasenoa scooped up a fumble and raced 70 yards for a touchdown with 40.4 seconds left in the half. He was freed by a splattering block by Spencer Sheff, and just like that, it was a game again.
Elk Grove had one first down in the first half and one in the third quarter, and leading rusher Wadus Parker managed just 11 yards on six carries in the half as the Knights strung him out. But the Herd is hardly a Parker one-man crew.
Elk Grove coach Chris Nixon was exceptional in calling the fourth quarter, going unconventional and bold as he figured the Herd had nothing to lose, except the season. He had freshman Tyler Vander Waal take over at quarterback and put Sheff and Arnold behind him in the backfield as Rio Linda seemed to have Parker solved. Parker, laboring with a bad ankle, finished with 35 yards on 12 carries, including a late first-down run to run out the clock.
Sheff sprinted up the middle for a 16-yard touchdown with 2:17 left, a play set up by an Arnold interception from his linebacking spot. Nixon elected to go for two and the jugular, and Arnold was thinking the same thing. Sheff dove in to make it 15-14. Rio Linda turned it over and Arnold iced it with 1:43 to go with a 30-yard touchdown up the middle, looking nimble and explosive and reminding later that he had lost some 10 pounds, hence the burst. In an instant, Rio Linda’s 11-game winning streak was over.
“I knew in my mind we wanted to go for two, and we had to do it quickly - ‘Let’s do it, go, go, go,’” Nixon said. “Tommy knows me. It’s a credit to him what he did tonight, and we’re on the same wave length.”
Arnold said he had a similar out-of-body experience against Grant earlier when he scored the lone touchdown in a 7-3 Herd win. This one means a bit more because it extends the season.
Defensive backs Shaunard Harts and Elijah Jones had interceptions for Elk Grove, and defensive tackle Sai Ta’amu was strong in the middle for the second successive week. He had two sacks and Letuligasenoa one. SHeff ran for 40 yards and Arnold 44. Brown had 145 at the half and was bottled up down the stretch.
The Herd returns to the D-II title game for the second straight season and seeks the program’s sixth section title. Elk Grove will play Del Oro, unbeaten in the section this season, in a battle of decades-long powers. Elk Grove ended Del Oro’s season last year in the semifinals.
Rio Linda players didn’t want to leave the field. For seniors in Matthew Morris, coach Mike Morris’ son, and two-way standout Skattebo, this was a record season that derailed amid a wild finish. Brown, the Knights’ leading rusher, is just a junior.
“Great team,” Arnold said after making sure he congratulated scores of Rio Linda players and coaches for the effort. “Marcel Brown is a load. I tried to tackle him and couldn’t. Just glad to win.”
Follow on Twitter: @SacBee_JoeD Joe Davidson and Mike Finnerty break down the section playoffs and look ahead via podcast on ESPN1320.net.
• No. 1 Folsom 42, No. 12 Jesuit 35
• No. 3 Oak Ridge 26, No. 7 Pleasant Grove 20
• No. 1 Del Oro 52, No. 4 Yuba City 26
• No. 3 Elk Grove 22, No. 2 Rio Linda 14
• No. 2 Manteca 45, No. 3 Inderkum 36
• No. 1 Central Catholic 38, No. 4 Ripon 7
• No. 6 Center 19, No. 2 Hilmar 15
• No. 1 Folsom vs. No. 3 Oak Ridge
• No. 1 Del Oro vs. No. 3 Elk Grove
• No. 2 Manteca vs. No. 8 Christian Brothers/
No. 5 Sacramento winner
• No. 1 Central Catholic vs. No. 2 Hilmar
• No. 1 Le Grand vs. No. 3 Golden Sierra, 6 p.m.
• No. 1 Bradshaw Christian vs.
No. 3 Ripon Christian, 1 p.m.