The aim is to take the journey full circle, right back to the Loomis Train Depot in Placer County.
That’s where the 2015 high school football season ended in the glow of a gathering of fans, family and friends in the town center to celebrate the Del Oro Golden Eagles winning a CIF state football championship. The scene was festive: players in uniform, fans cheering, confetti in the air, air horns blaring and coaches with expressions of blissful exhaustion at the conclusion of a 16-week season that felt like a marathon.
The happy returns will take place if Del Oro can win a second consecutive state title Saturday at the Golden Eagles’ home away from home – Sacramento State. Del Oro (13-2) will take on San Clemente (12-3) of Orange County for the state Division I-A championship at Hornet Stadium, where Del Oro has gone 6-0.
That includes five Sac-Joaquin Section banners and the 2015 state trophy. Del Oro has won 11 consecutive postseason games in the past two seasons, a regional record. The Golden Eagles have 17 returning starters – seven of whom have started for three seasons. Trust, familiarity and unity bind the team.
“It’s not easy getting back to a state championship, but it’s been a lot of fun, and it’s a huge week for us and our school,” said Del Oro senior wide receiver-defensive back Mason Hurst. “We’re all really close. We played a lot of football last year – 16 weeks. And it’s 16 weeks this season, so you really get to know each other.”
What they know is that offensive balance, strong line play and gang tackling on defense remain a championship formula.
“This is the best offense we’ve had – really, really good – and we’ve been playing great defense,” said Del Oro coach Casey Taylor, in his 15th season. “When we have it going, it goes.”
It’s been going.
Senior quarterback Stone Smartt, a dual threat, is the catalyst. Running backs Dalton Gee and Camrion Davis, two more varsity fixtures the past three seasons, are 1,000-yard rushers.
Smartt has passed for 2,862 yards and 29 touchdowns, including four to beat storied Bakersfield 57-16 in the Northern California Regional championship game, hitting Hurst twice on 49-yard plays. Smartt has also rushed for 841 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Gee has rushed for 1,304 yards and 19 scores, and he reached the end zone on a 36-yard screen pass against Bakersfield. Davis has gone for 1,003 yards and 12 scores, and he showed his versatility with a kickoff return touchdown against Bakersfield. He’s also a hard-hitting linebacker.
“We’ve got a lot of tools to work with, and we use them to our advantage,” Smartt said.
Smartt said those tools include guards, tackles and centers. The Del Oro skill players regularly credit the line with the team’s success, including school rushing records.
Del Oro returned three offensive-line starters – Hunter Halverson, Dalton Heryford and Pablo Miller – and blended in new mainstays Jack Beaman, Juan Caridad and Rory Connolly. Heryford, the leader, holds court during practice as linemen surround him to talk shop.
The only thing that rivals Heryford’s passion for football is his zest for hunting and fishing.
Del Oro players also excel in the classroom, combining for a 3.4 GPA. Davis and Smartt each sport 4.0 GPAs. Del Oro players also read to students at Loomis Elementary School to promote literacy.
“It can be hard, late nights, but you’ve got to have priorities, and school is the main priority,” Davis said. “Football comes second, but football is very important to me. I want to get a law degree. This teaches me to manage my time, how to work hard, those tired nights. I’ll need that later in life.”
For now, there’s a championship to chase.
“It’s definitely been a fun ride,” Smartt said.
CIF state championship
Saturday: 4 p.m.
Del Oro (13-2) vs. San Clemente (12-3)