They see the football championship banners on the walls of the gyms, and they want to add some more. Maybe a lot more.
The Cordova Lancers haven’t been to the playoffs in a decade, since 2006, but after Friday night’s 40-14 thumping of the visiting El Dorado Cougars, they’re in first place all alone in the Sierra Valley Conference with a 3-0 record and 6-2 overall. Senior running back Deante McCullough’s 206 yards rushing and pair of touchdowns helped clinch a playoff berth and, with a team that features several sophomores at the skill positions, the Lancers appear to have a bright immediate future after suffering through a tough recent past.
“We talk about Lancers tradition a lot,” said defensive end and running back Kelechi Njoku. “We see the banners every time we’re in the gym and Coach (Darren Nill) gets us pumped up talking about how good those old teams were. We got to add some more. And to do that it’s going to take some hard work.”
Njoku, a 6-2, 210-pound junior, scored on a 2-yard run in the fourth quarter in what turned out to be the winning touchdown. That started a streak of four unanswered scores after the Cougars started the third quarter with two scores to take a 14-13 lead. Njoku had a sack of Cougars quarterback Aaron Golmitz on the next series that forced a punt, and the Cougars never got anything going from there.
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Njoku had four sacks Friday night and is one of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s best sack artists. Just ask Nill.
“(Kelechi) is probably the most athletic guy on this team, and that’s saying something,” said Nill, who is in his second year as head of the Lancers’ program. “I’m pretty sure he’s leading the section in sacks, and with another four I’m going to say he is leading the section.”
Nill is leading the Lancers back to relevance after more than two decades of futility. The Lancers were a regional powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s and even won a national championship in 1978. But with the closure of Mather Air Force Base and an influx of immigrants the demographics changed in Rancho Cordova, and declining enrollments hit the football program the hardest.
Since that last playoff appearance in 2006, Cordova suffered through a trio of 1-9 seasons, a pair of 3-7 seasons and a 2-8 year. They’ve been on the upswing for three years now with a 6-4 campaign in 2014, yet just missing the playoffs, and a 5-5 mark in Nill’s first year.
McCullough, a co-captain, was most impressive when his team needed to mute the Cougars’ momentum in the third quarter. He had 149 yards on 13 carries to pace a Lancers attack that featured seven different ballcarriers Friday night. McCullough went over the 1,000-yard mark with his second consecutive 200-yard or more game. Last week, in a 53-26 win over Union Mine, he ran for 204 yards and four touchdowns.
And with sophomore quarterback Xavier Johnson providing solid play under center, the Lancers are primed for a serious resurgence, and Nill said they’re going to be good for a while.
“It’s a big deal,” Nill said of the playoff return. “This community is hungry for another great football team. I haven’t had to pay for a haircut in months.”
Mark Billingsley is a Carmichael-based freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or @editorwriter001.
El Dorado (6-2) 0 0 14 0 - 14
Cordova (6-2) 7 6 0 27 – 40
C – Banks 36 pass from X. Johnson (Wimberly kick)
C – McCullough 22 run (kick fail)
ED – Fox 1 run (Esparza kick)
ED – Youngblood 10 run (Esparza kick)
C – Njoku 2 run (pass fail)
C – Banks 2 run (run good)
C – McCullough 3 run (run failed)
C – T. Johnson 23 run (Wimberly kick)