This one wasn’t for a Sierra Foothill League championship, unlike so many times before when these spirited Placer County rivals collided, but it wasn’t dull by any means.
There was still plenty at stake in Loomis on Friday night, and it played out like a knockout-round elimination game with a sense of urgency as heavy as the cool air.
Del Oro High School, unranked after an uncharacteristically slow 3-6 start, ran with purpose and then defended with extra purpose late on Senior Night to beat No. 10 Granite Bay 17-14 on Friday night in a contest dripping with playoff implications.
The Golden Eagles (4-6, 3-3) secured the fourth playoff spot in the power-packed SFL behind top-ranked Folsom, No. 3 Oak Ridge and No. 7 Rocklin and will enter the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II field as a very confident dark horse.
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Granite Bay (5-5, 2-4) has a sliver of a shot to secure a playoff berth, which would extend the program to 13 successive postseason showings.
Had Del Oro lost, it would have finished with its worst record since going 2-7 in 1977, and it would have missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
13 Consecutive playoff appearances by Granite Bay, a streak that’s in jeopardy
Sweating it out was longtime Golden Eagles coach Casey Taylor, who challenged himself, his staff and his players to up the intensity. Taylor endured criticism from all angles this season – the nonleague schedule was too stiff, not enough touches for certain players, the defense is leaky, and so on.
“I understand it,” Taylor said before the game. “I’m the coach, so I get 95 percent of the heat. Everyone except the janitors has answers for us how we can be better. But we weren’t fractured as a team. We kept with it, and we gave ourselves a shot, and that’s all we could ask for.”
Dalton Gee rushed for 92 hard-charging yards and Cameron Davis scooted and sprinted for 93 yards for Del Oro. Gee scored on a one-yard run for a 10-7 lead in the third quarter and ultimately won it with a one-yard dive with 1:56 to play.
Del Oro ran with power behind a line that needed to play big, and the big guys in the trenches delivered. Stone Smartt, a 4.0 student, rushed for 37 yards and passed for 68 for Del Oro, which was pushed to the wire by gritty Granite Bay.
Grizzlies TD called back
The Grizzlies had a touchdown pass called back for pass interference with 56 seconds left after Gee’s go-ahead score. Justin Burrage broke up a pass with 30.5 seconds left at the Del Oro 5 on fourth down to allow the Golden Eagles the pleasure of a victory formation.
Del Oro suffered close losses to Punahou, the fourth-ranked team in Hawaii (22-15); Bellarmine of San Jose, the top-ranked team by the San Jose Mercury News (34-31); and Oak Ridge (24-21). That meant the Golden Eagles were a few bounces away from owning a winning record.
What concerned Taylor and his coaching staff was Del Oro’s effort in some games.
I understand it. I’m the coach, so I get 95 percent of the heat. Everyone except the janitors has answers for us how we can be better. But we weren’t fractured as a team. We kept with it, and we gave ourselves a shot, and that’s all we could ask for.
Del Oro coach Casey Taylor, whose team was 3-6 entering Friday, on the criticism he has faced this season
“In some of those losses, we didn’t compete with a chip on our shoulder, and we didn’t play physical, and we didn’t execute,” Taylor said. “Can’t win that way. But we competed against Oak Ridge and against De La Salle and against Woodcreek. We knew we could play better.”
Kyle Kraft passed for 210 yards for Granite Bay, hitting Alex Martinez for a 15-yard touchdown for a 14-10 lead in capping a 95-yard drive.
Sam Cusano, Granite Bay’s superb every-down senior leader, had a nine-yard touchdown run and played well at safety.
Granite Bay showed plenty of promise this season under first-year coach Jeff Evans, and his team also has suffered agonizingly close losses, including last week to Rocklin, 27-24.
The playoff section meeting is scheduled for Saturday in Lodi.