The goal for the Del Oro High School football team hasn’t changed.
Start the season with a festive gathering at the Loomis Train Depot in the heat of August, players waving and cheering to the fans, and end it on the same steps, celebrating a championship in the chill of December.
Last season, the Golden Eagles started 2-6, their playoff hopes nearly dashed. But they won their final eight games, including six in the playoffs, capped by a 16-13 victory over previously unbeaten Camarillo for the CIF State Division II-AA championship at Sacramento State. The celebration at the Train Depot lived up to the excitement of the game; the players and coaches were hailed as heroes.
The 2016 campaign began Friday, when youth players as young as 6 and varsity players as old as 18, coaches and cheerleaders were introduced to a roar of approval from folks who embrace this team.
“That’s a great way to start and end a season, right there,” Del Oro coach Casey Taylor said.
What I learned last year is that you can’t pay attention to the criticism or it’ll drive you nuts. The players were getting the riffraff at home, too, and for the kids to work through it, I was really proud of them.
Del Oro coach Casey Taylor
“It’s a big thing here, football, and the whole town comes out for something like (the rally),” wide receiver/defensive back Mason Hurst said. “The whole town shuts down for football. I think it’s great. We all do. We have to represent Loomis and the community when we put our jerseys on. It’s special here. Everyone looks up to us, and we have a lot on our backs.”
That weight is heavier than ever this season.
“We know we’re the best, that everyone wants to come get us, and we’re excited for that challenge,” Hurst said. “Last year when we struggled, everyone had a solution, that their idea would work. But it’s a long, hard process, and we believe in that process, and we believe in coach Taylor.”
Despite criticism from fans and parents when the team struggles, Taylor has no desire to coach elsewhere. He knows he has one of the best high school coaching jobs in the state, with a program rooted in a youth-feeder system, fueled by motivated athletes and backed by a rooting section called “The Black Hole” that helps fill the stadium. The administration also lends strong support.
“Tradition is the best thing about Del Oro football,” Taylor said, “and tradition is the worst thing about Del Oro football. You want a rabid fan base, but you don’t want the criticism of the players. Football is a vehicle for life here, and most get that. We have players read to kids, get involved in the community. It’s more than just games.
“What I learned last year is that you can’t pay attention to the criticism or it’ll drive you nuts. The players were getting the riffraff at home, too, and for the kids to work through it, I was really proud of them. Sometimes parents live too vicariously through their kids. We like to say, ‘Don’t get in their way. Be a parent, not a peer.’ ”
With 17 returning starters, including seven in their third year as first stringers, Del Oro might have its finest team, and that’s saying something. In Taylor’s 14 seasons, the Golden Eagles have reached the playoffs 13 times and won five Sac-Joaquin Section tiles in eight championship game appearances. And since 2011, they’ve appeared in an area-leading three CIF State Bowl games.
Among those three-year starters are five offensive linemen who also play on the defensive line: Hunter Halverson, Dalton Heryford, Israel Luna, Pablo Miller and Ray Thomas.
The whole town shuts down for football. I think it’s great. We all do. We have to represent Loomis and the community when we put our jerseys on. It’s special here.
Back at quarterback is Stone Smartt, who has grown from a 130-pound freshman to a 6-foot-4, 195-pound senior. Smartt, a 4.0 student, has scholarship offers from Sacramento State and Northern Arizona. One of his favorite targets is Hurst, who has offers from Sac State, UC Davis, Montana State, Nevada and UNLV. Hurst also led the region with nine interceptions last season.
Running backs Dalton Gee and Cam Davis, who both rushed for more than 900 yards a year ago, also are back. Davis had 202 yards and two touchdowns against Camarillo.
Hurst said the veteran players have grown up through the program.
“To me, confidence is everything,” he said. “We’re all become more confident. When you’re a sophomore, still learning the position, the game, it’s harder. When you’re confident and experienced, you play faster, harder, better. Getting back to Sac State (to play for section and state titles) is in the back of all of our minds, but we know we have to take it one game at a time. It’s a process.”
With so much experience and talent, Del Oro would be the No. 1 team in The Sacramento Bee’s preseason rankings most seasons. But Folsom has that spot because it is 50-0 against teams from the section since 2012.
Fans in Loomis have Oct. 7 marked on their calendars. That’s when Folsom visits for a highly anticipated Sierra Football League showdown.