It was just as he envisioned.
Trailing by one point, an undefeated season on the line and time running out. The football placed tantalizingly close to the goal line. While players and fans on both sidelines could barely contain their nerves, one man remained confident and calm: Matt Ray.
The Antelope High School coach dreamed of this, a chance to elevate an upstart program by surpassing a storied one. When Elijah Dotson broke free for a 42-yard touchdown run with 1:41 left against visiting Grant in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II quarterfinal, Ray immediately decided to go for two and, ultimately, the win.
Garrett Chapman scored on a sweep, the Titans held the Pacers on their last frantic drive, and the unbeaten season continued amid a jubilant scene of a 29-28, program-defining triumph.
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“We believe in our coach, who he is, what he is and what he means to us,” said Dotson, a senior running back who eclipsed 2,000 rushing yards against Grant, where his father, Robert, was a star running back in 1992.
2,170 Rushing yards by Antelope’s Elijah Dotson
The Titans (12-0) now take their act to another level, against another longtime power. Antelope faces defending section champion Del Oro in a semifinal Friday in Loomis, needing to clear another hurdle to reach uncharted land.
With Ray the school’s only head varsity football coach since it opened in 2008, the Titans seek their first section title-game appearance. What’s the motto? One must beat the best to be the best? Antelope is on that path.
“I’m just so proud of these kids who have worked so hard,” Ray said. “We knew we’d go for two with about eight minutes left if it got to that point. I figured if we have a chance to win it, then we’re going for it. And now another great chance. When opportunity meets preparation, it means success.”
Dotson is the star player. Teachers praise him for his academic achievements and leadership, and opponents respect him for his ability to take over games with his breakaway speed and power between the tackles. He ran for 287 yards and three touchdowns against Grant, giving him 2,170 yards and 25 scores this season. Dotson received an athletic scholarship offer from Sacramento State the morning after the win over Grant. He even made extra tacos that day, a culinary specialty he calls “The Dotson Swagger.”
Ray, 36, has a bit of swagger, too, starting from his prep playing days. He grew up in Quincy in the heart of Plumas County, where he set Northern Section career-passing marks for his coaches – his father, Jeff, and grandfather, Don. The older Rays coached Quincy for 50 years.
“Our family was always very close,” Ray said. “We grew up three doors down from my grandparents. My grandfather was my second dad. Most of my childhood and adolescence was with those two, getting wood, being around the football program. I was very lucky. They were great mentors in my life, how to treat people.”
After East Nicolaus, I thought winning section championships was as easy as pie. My grandfather and father never won one in 50 years and I had won two in three years. Then I came here as a young coach, and wow, you learn it’s not easy.
Matt Ray, Antelope football coach
Although his grandfather died at 76 in 2011, Ray holds his memory close.
“I pray and think about him during the national anthem, and I talk to him at the end of that prayer,” Ray said. “I feel his presence. I feel him sitting on top of those stadium lights, looking down on me.”
As a young coach in his 20s, Ray led small-school East Nicolaus to Northern Section championships in 2006 and 2007. He then caught wind of the Antelope opening and has been there ever since.
Ray has not had a losing season. His first varsity team at Antelope went 5-5. The Titans went 10-2 in 2012 and 12-1 last season. Now he has a son following in his path, 3-year-old Vander, who keeps his father up late diving into the living room couch with a football. Vander high-fives varsity players before and after games.
“He can’t get enough of this game,” Ray said. “It’s all gone by so fast. After East Nicolaus, I thought winning section championships was as easy as pie. My grandfather and father never won one in 50 years and I had won two in three years. Then I came here as a young coach, and wow, you learn it’s not easy. I didn’t think I’d get this job. (I) got the call, and it was one of those ‘Holy (cow)’ moments.”
The moments only intensify now.
Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD
Follow all the action Friday night through The Sacramento Bee’s live blog beginning at 6:30 p.m. Joe Davidson, The Bee’s prep sports expert, and other high school reporters throughout the region will provide scores, highlights, photos and video from various games. sacbee.com
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Davidson will be Folsom High School on Friday night as the Bulldogs host the Elk Grove Thundering Herd in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal.
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