It’s a team simple in approach – run with pride and fury – and it is a group led by one of the state’s most dynamic and prolific talents in Ryan Robards.
The “Hammerheads” – Elk Grove High School’s gritty and skilled offensive line – lead the charge in tempo and ferocity, but it is the efforts and attitude of Julius Fullah that help bind the Thundering Herd as one cohesive and dominant outfit.
Fullah’s efforts as a blocking back, a quick-burst runner and a leader were paramount in Elk Grove beating Oak Ridge 30-18 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal on a biting cold Friday night at Thunder Stadium.
Robards rushed for 204 hard-charging yards on 40 carries and had scoring runs of five and one yards to give him 50 total scores for the season. The senior also hammered a 42-yard field goal and had an end-zone interception. Robards now has 2,705 rushing yards this season, tops in Northern California.
Fullah doesn’t have outlandish statistics, but he finds abundant joy in the success of his teammates, and he’s wildly effective with the ball, too, on occasion. The senior put the game out of reach with an eight-yard score to make it 30-10 with 4:51 to play.
Fullah, a three-year starter and a 4.0 student like Robards, rushed for 100 yards on eight carries, including a 51-yard sprint to set up his own touchdown.
“Julius is a great teammate, truly an unsung hero,” Elk Grove coach Chris Nixon said. “He’s a captain, and like Robards, when this season started, we needed running backs so we plugged those two in.”
Elk Grove (13-0) advanced to its third section final since 2012, and it earned a showdown the entire section seemingly wanted since the season started. The Thundering Herd will take on top-seeded Folsom, which outlasted St. Mary’s of Stockton 56-49 in the other semifinal.
Folsom has won a state-leading 29 consecutive games and covets a four-peat section championship, including three in D-I. Folsom beat Elk Grove for the D-II banner in 2012.
Elk Grove used its line to control the clock behind the big heavies that collectively embrace its “Hammerheads” name and motto. It consists of Jake Bellecci, Diego Cervantes, J.C. Cornelio, Jon Pochop, Trevor Reinwald, Lau Ta’amu and fullback Aidan Martinez.
Reinwald, older brother of standout receiver Trevor Reinwald, had steam coming off of his head after the game, and a grin that creased his face. This was old-school football, he said, and the “Hammerheads” were in their blissful element.
Elk Grove on several snaps was called for procedure, the “Hammerheads” were that eager to crash into bodies.
“We like to run the ball and control the ball,” Reinwald said. “It’s great to see. Everyone looks for Robards on defense, but Julius makes plays.”
As does quarterback Jayden Machado. The junior hit Jonah McMillan for a terrific, somersaulting five-yard touchdown play with 10:19 to play for a 23-10 lead.
Elk Grove’s stout defense was challenged by the skills of Ian Book, the superb senior quarterback headed to Notre Dame. Book hit Alex Voege for a 43-yard touchdown to cut Elk Grove’s lead to 13-10 some 85 seconds into the second half, and he fired a 14-yard strike to Brock Martin for the final margin with 3 minutes to play. Elk Grove recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Book passed for 244 yards in capping his three-year varsity career as one of the region’s all-time great quarterbacks.
“Any time he has his hands on the ball, you’re nervous, and he has his hands on the ball all the time, so we had our fingers crossed,” Nixon said. “Our defense was outstanding.”
The defense, a unit that includes Bellecci and Ta’amu, chased Book often, and Oak Ridge (10-3) was held to a season-low output.