Steve Birch speaks from experience when he discusses football’s importance in Placer and Kern counties.
Birch, the defensive coordinator at Del Oro for the past 12 years, grew up in Loomis and played sports during his two years at Del Oro. The son of a traveling minister, he finished high school at Taft in Kern County in the late 1980s. He lived close enough to Bakersfield High, some 35 miles away, to understand the tradition of football excellence there.
Now he’s scheming how to stop speedy and prolific Bakersfield, Del Oro’s opponent in Friday night’s CIF State Division I championship game at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center in Carson.
Birch returned to Del Oro, he said, because, “It’s special here.” Del Oro has been a regional power for 25 years, with nine Sac-Joaquin Section championships, including four during Birch’s time with head coach Casey Taylor.
While Del Oro has been winning league championships for 50 years, Bakersfield’s storied program dates to the 1890s. The Drillers won six state championships in the 1920s, and their 36 Central Section titles are a state record.
“Bakersfield is always something big,” Birch said. “Everyone knows Bakersfield.”
Followers of the CIF Bowl scene know Del Oro, too. The Golden Eagles will be the first Sacramento-area team to play in two bowl games. Two starters from Del Oro’s 2011 team that lost to Helix of San Diego County in the Division II game, two-way lineman Tanner Woods and tight end-linebacker Tyler Meteer, now lead the Golden Eagles.
“I remember thinking it was crazy and fun,” Meteer said of his last trip to Carson. “This will be even better.”
Added Woods, “I remember being awe-struck by the scene, the stadium, how huge it was. But it was fun. It’s great to be back.”
Bakersfield is making its first CIF Bowl appearance, and the significance isn’t lost on the players.
“Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would be here,” Drillers quarterback Asauni Rufus said. “I mean, sure, it was a goal, but I don’t know if we believed it until it was here.
“We’re starting to make all the old Drillers up in heaven happy. We’re giving them some bragging rights. Growing up as a fourth-generation Driller, this has been all I thought it would be. I looked up to all those guys who came before me, and now I’m the guy that kids are looking up to. I take that seriously.”
Both teams enter the game with momentum: Bakersfield (12-2) has won 10 consecutive games, and Del Oro (13-2) has a 12-game winning streak.
Del Oro was given a hero’s sendoff Thursday morning, including being greeted by several Marine Corps officers who offered a salute as part of the school’s connection with the Honor Bowl that pays homage to wounded veterans. Children at the nearby elementary school waved signs of support. Other buses are or will soon be on their way south, hauling fans and students who make up the “Black Hole.”
Del Oro continues the region’s annual appearance in state bowl games. Grant beat Long Beach Poly in the 2008 Open game. The following year, Rocklin lost on a late field goal to Servite of Anaheim in theDivision II game. In 2010, Folsom beat Serra of Gardena in D-II, and Del Oro lost in 2011 in D-II. Last season, Granite Bay had a late comeback to beat Long Beach Poly in D-I.
Bakersfield has a state-record 748 football wins, but Del Oro isn’t intimidated.
“It’s finally here,” Taylor said. “From January to now, it comes down to a final 48 minutes. We told our guys this is a great way to make a legacy.”
• Who: Del Oro (13-2) vs. Bakersfield (12-2)
• Where: StubHub Center, Carson
• When: 8 p.m.
• TV: CSNBA
• Tickets: $15 for adults, $10 for high school students (with valid ASB card), seniors and children; available at ticketmaster.com