The program turning point came amid humility and sound defeat, players reduced to rubbing out welts, massaging battered pride.
The Folsom Bulldogs absorbed a crushing five-touchdown loss to Grant in the 2010 season opener for all of the free world to see on ESPN.
Thirteen weeks later, Folsom exacted a sweet measure of revenge with a rout in a playoff game, en route to the CIF State Division II championship in Carson, and the machine has chugged down the championship tracks ever since, the Bulldogs team flag whipping in the wind.
So imagine the anxiety of curiosity and glee for Folsom this week in preparation for another shot at the Pacers, this time for the Northern California Division I championship. The Bulldogs were positively dominant and at times spectacular in all facets, rolling 52-21 on Friday night in front of some 9,500 at Sacramento State as Bailey Laolagi scored on a run and an interception return and Jake Browning accounting for four scores.
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Already the national record holder with 220 career touchdowns coming in and the state single-season record holder for total touchdowns with 86, Browning added another exclamation point to his remarkable resume. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Washington-bound senior caught a wide-open 5-yard touchdown pass from receiver Josiah Deguara off a trick play for a 17-0 second-quarter lead. He was the first to admit that he wasn't at his best, completing 13 of 25 passes for 259 yards and three touchdowns, two to Cole Thompson, but he delivered an extra nail in the season for the proud Pacers to account for the final score, a 71-yard bomb to Jake Morgado to make it 52-7. Browning was intercepted twice, and he attempted just three passes in the second half, but the Bulldogs rushed for 240 yards in piling up 504 yards total. Browning said he'll treasure the victory nonetheless.
"You remember the wins and the memories more than the stats," Browning said.
Donovan Brown threw three touchdowns, two late, as the Pacers (14-1) competed to the end. The Bulldogs now seek to become the first regional team to cap a 16-0 season with a win next Friday over Oceanside of the San Diego Section for the CIF State D-I title in Carson. All of this rooted in a rout.
"Grant beating us that badly in 2010, they held us to a new standard, how to improve," Folsom co-coach Troy Taylor said. "When we won the rematch (41-20), that was the pinnacle of us proving that we could be an elite team and program. Everything changed for us after that first Grant loss, and it really validated that we stay the course. I know that was the most pivotal game of my career, at any level, with the greatest moments."
Co-coach Kris Richardson agreed, calling this season, "the perfect storm with everything going right," and Folsom's non-stop push to be the best continued to the tune of three Sac-Joaquin Section titles and the state ring. The culmination has been this season as the Bulldogs set myriad offensive records but also showed that they are a complete team with a stifling defense that refused to allow the Pacers any easy yards. Laolagi punctuated that defensive spirit with his 17-yard interception return for a score that make it 24-0 with 6:46 left in the second, a play set up by a pass rush. On the last play of the half, Folsom was awarded a safety when Brown was called for intentional grounding, though TV replays show he was clearly at the 1. It was an example of Grant's frustrations, and it was going to take a lot more than one controversial call to derail Folsom.
Grant (14-1) tried to get pressure on Browning but couldn't reach him. Laolagi rushed for 87 yards and Bryan Weldy made it 46-0 with a 1-yard plunge late in the third. In the season of records, Thompson's 33 touchdowns tie him for the state single-season record.
Folsom was led on defense by Laolagi, Sam Whittingham, Sam Whitney, Jonah Williams and a host of others.
"We want to be known as a team that plays great defense, too," said Whitney, also the Bulldogs' center.
With a game to go, Folsom has already made its mark in section history as perhaps the region's greatest team. Folsom's seniors have gone 43-2 with three section titles and this win here, and it they extended their winning streak against section teams to a record 41 games.
"It's the most successful class in section history," Taylor said last week, adding, "and we have maybe the most successful passing attack in the history of the country."
Taylor said what sets this group apart is how bonded it is.
"We have such a great group," Taylor said. "These kids really like each other, and it shows. You hear coaches say, 'you don't need to like each other, just respect each other.' I don't agree. To be really special like this team, you've got to really care for each other. When you care, you play harder, you want it more."