At Del Oro, it’s about team unity

No one especially stands out in shoulder pads and helmets in Loomis. There are no stars in a sport that thrives on star power.

Yet, Del Oro High School has become a football factory of sorts without really being one. There is no mass production of five-star recruits coming down an assembly and being shipped off to major colleges – or even small colleges – across the country.

What the Golden Eagles have produced through the years are championship teams.

Without individual standouts, Del Oro has become the definition of team unity, a collection of what Golden Eagles coaches call “grinders.” And “Team Grind” includes players who wear helmets so gouged and beaten over the course of the season that they’re beyond repair. Those helmets are placed in the passenger seat on the ride home and then propped by the bed at night.

Del Oro is about athletes who may be better in other sports but play football because it’s what kids do in this small Placer County town. And it’s about athletes who realize that they may be suiting up in their final football game this weekend in Carson, where the Golden Eagles will play storied Bakersfield in the CIF State Bowl Division I championship game.

Not just their final game as a team, but for good. For most of the Golden Eagles, the StubHub Center is their football finish line.

“Here, it’s more than just football,” said defensive end Tanner Woods. “It’s about the entire experience, and we’ve had that.”

The experience includes becoming the area’s first school to reach two state bowl games, again a measure of staying power without star power.

Woods and team co-captain Tyler Meteer, a tight end/linebacker, are as close to team headliners as you’ll find at Del Oro. The seniors are the team’s most experienced players, three-year starters who played in the 2011 Division II state bowl – a 35-24 loss to Helix-La Mesa.

They play every down as if it’s their last. That’s especially true for Woods. He says he has dreamed of joining the Marine Corps since he was 6 years old. He will enlist after graduation. Despite often facing double-team blockers, Woods has 10 sacks, including four in the NorCal Regional Division I win over Serra of San Mateo last week.

And Woods has personality. Last season, he’d punctuate a sack by “cutting wood,” gesturing with an imaginary axe. This season, his sacks are followed with a quick two-gun six-shooter draw. Woods is as cowboy as they come, from Wranglers to the cowboy hat and boots.

Meteer is actually generating mild recruiting interest as Del Oro’s all-time career receptions leader who also plays both linebacker positions.

A role for all

The leading rusher for Del Oro is Dylan Kainrath, who wears a cast on his left hand and a brace on his left knee. But he’s good to go. Kainrath has been walking-wounded material all season, garnering the good-natured nickname of “Princess” from the trainers who patch him up every week. In truth, teammates say he’s the toughest player on the roster. Kainraith has rushed for 1,890 yards and 24 touchdowns, either bouncing off of tacklers or racing past them. Despite his football success, he’d still rather be wrestling.

Del Oro’s quarterback is Michael Moore, an honors student who has played his best games in the playoffs – five touchdown passes to beat Yuba City in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinal, three down the stretch to beat Elk Grove in the section final, and two pinpoint touchdown tosses that proved paramount in beating Serra. He has received one letter from a Division III college program but is having too much fun to complain.

“Two state bowl appearances in three years says a lot about the coaches here and the program because it isn’t just the players,” Moore said. “It’s everyone.”

Therin Heryford has made plays as a receiver, on special teams and in the secondary. Brandon Johnson is a two-way lineman with long blond hair that jets out of the back of his helmet. Brothers Emileo and Elias Campos offer physicality and personality. Other two-way players include Jonathon Tuttle, a receiver and defensive back, and Kyle Wells, a linebacker and tight end.

Add it up and you have something.

“We have good high school players who overachieve, who believe in each other, who believe in the system and who are fundamentally sound,” said defensive coordinator Steve Birch. “We’ve done a pretty good job with it. They just find a way.”

Sugar Shane Spirit

The most spirited Del Oro player is Shane Peterson, a senior special-teams player who goes by “Sugar Shane.” He’s the rah-rah one on the sideline, grabbing Moore – who struggled early during the section final – and spitting as he hollered, “We believe in you!”

Peterson uses hand puppets when the Del Oro team reads to elementary school children, part of the team’s community involvement and character development that are staples of coach Casey Taylor’s program.

“Shane’s the show!” Woods said, laughing. “You need guys like that.”

That’s because on a roster of 57, there are more Petersons than a Woods or Meteer.

“Every guy wants to be the guy, and in a lot of ways, Peterson’s one of our guys,” Taylor said.

Peterson found out just how much of a role model he is during his volunteer work with the Golden Eagles’ youth football program, imploring effort and fun.

“My revealing moment,” Peterson said, “was when a mother told me her son was doing better, telling me, ‘You’ve given him confidence.’ The mom was in tears. It was surreal. It just shows that we can make a difference.”

In an effort to fortify an already united team, Peterson on Monday was proudly displaying a new hair style and egging on teammates to alter their locks in a similar fashion.

“I’m a founding father of the Del Oro Football Mullet Militia,” he said, laughing, adding that Heryford’s father, Hunter, is a barber ready to shear. “I wanted a mean mullet. I got one. We all need them. It’s a team thing. It’s cool. It’s awesome. It’s memories.”

Peterson added that the Golden Eagles are closely linked to the Del Oro student rooting section called “The Black Hole.” That backdrop of students is part of what makes Del Oro home games feel like a festival. The plan is to bring the festival to Carson.

Coaching foundation

Taylor was so animated, so passionate during his interview for the Del Oro coaching job 12 years ago he sweated through his shirt. He landed the job, his first as a head football coach. Taylor, 43, elevated a program that won section titles in the 1990s – including under quarterback Randy Fasani, who was then the nation’s No. 1 recruit – to a state-wide level. In his tenure, Taylor has guided seven teams to the section finals, winning four, while taking on every powerhouse he can schedule, be it De La Salle or Grant.

Taylor said he found it most important to “build the boy into a man” by using football as a vehicle in life lessons, accountability and dealing with success and failure. Taylor said he grew as a coach and man after attending sessions from Character Combine, a nationally recognized program. Earlier this season, Taylor had his team tour Camp Pendleton in Southern California and meet with wounded servicemen who returned from war without all of their limbs. Each spring, his players escort special-needs students at the “Evening of Dreams” dance.

“When I first got involved with Character Combine, I heard people speak about not having a father in their lives growing up and what sports can do, and I was thinking, ‘That's me!’ ” Taylor said. “Football was everything for me. It got me into college when there were no expectations at home to go to college. It got me through college, helped me get a master’s degree, a teaching credential and a job. Football made me. There are studies that show that 63 percent of teenagers don’t have a positive role model. That’s a lot of pressure on coaches. We have to help.

“And I've learned that this is more than X’s and O’s. It’s about relationships. You have to let your players know you care and that you love them. If it’s just wins and losses, then you’re not in it for the right reasons.”

Moore, the quarterback, said Taylor is “the rock of the program.”

“Coach T might be the most influential person on campus,” Moore said. “A lot of people look up to him as a role model and leader. He holds a special place in our hearts and in the hearts of Loomis.”