Aaron Espero still doesn’t know where he got the move that made a Downey tackler miss so badly he skidded eight yards off his angle and into his own teammates.
The move Espero delivered helped propel the junior Inderkum High School halfback to a 69-yard scoring run that sent the No. 3-seeded Tigers to a 69-29 victory on Nov. 9 and into a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinal showdown at No. 2 Central Catholic of Modesto on Friday. The game was originally set for Nov. 16, but smoke from the Camp Fire prompted Sac-Joaquin Section officials to postpone games for a week.
Espero’s effort electrified the crowd and almost wore out the back button on coach Terry Stark’s computer keyboard as he watched film over the long weekend. And then he described what he saw.
“He’s so very elusive,” Stark said before taking his team to Roseville’s Arena Softball to get out of the smoky conditions to practice Tuesday, a day before games were postponed. “He does some things that I’ve never seen before. Against Downey on that touchdown, 12 guys missed. Some guys missed him twice.
“About midway through the run, he leapt up into the air, kept his feet churning like he was riding a bike and when he hit the ground, he changed direction so fast that a Downey defender shot about 10 yards past him.”
Espero is a 6-foot, 190-pound all-purpose player who is equally effective catching passes out of the backfield, especially when defenses load the box. Espero was the MVP on the junior varsity team as a freshman, Stark said, and moving him to varsity for his sophomore season was an easy call.
Espero is a co-captain, an honor usually reserved for seniors. He is the team’s second-leading rusher with 934 yards on 91 carries. He averages a first down at 10.3 yards per carry. He has nine touchdowns on the ground and is tied with Isaiah Ward with four receiving scores.
Espero had three catches for 124 yards, two of them for TDs, against Downey. He chuckled when recounting his remarkable run.
“I’m just trying to find the first-down marker on every run and that move, I don’t know,” he said. “It just happened naturally, but I think it came from training.”
If Central Catholic chooses to focus on Espero, it may get burned by Raymond Brown. He has 1,488 yards rushing on just 89 carries, good for an astounding 16.7 yards per rush, and 21 touchdowns.
Against Downey, Brown had 12 carries for 156 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 13 yards per rush. Brown was a wide receiver in Sacramento High’s spread offense his freshman and sophomore seasons before moving to Natomas for his junior year.
Stark said he can only coach Espero and Brown on how to wait for blocks and which hole to hit in the wing-T scheme. After that, it’s up to them, he said.
“They both have great vision,” Stark said. “I told them, though, if they do something different than what I tell them, they better score.”
Stark said Brown is a little faster than Espero, and at 5-feet-7 and 170 pounds, he is more compact and muscular. The senior bench presses more than 300 pounds and squats 405.
Brown is so proud of the physique he’s built after countless hours in the Tigers’ weight room that he’s quite often shirtless. It can be 45 degrees on campus, but it’s still too hot for Brown, and there goes the shirt.
“Yup,” he said. “Too hot.”
The weight room is where Stark said he has built a squad that can not only get to the section final but finally win one. In Stark’s coaching career at Inderkum, his teams have been to four section title games, but have yet to hold up the iconic blue and white banner.
The program has won league 12 championships under Stark with 13 consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins, including recent seasons of 12-2, 12-1, 11-3, 11-1 and now 11-0.
“This year’s team has been more about strength than speed,” Stark said. “We have a lot of 215-pound kids this year whereas, in year’s past, we’d have much smaller and, frankly, weaker players. For instance, we played Del Oro on the section finals (two years ago) with two linemen who were just 185 pounds and not nearly as strong as our linemen this year.
“We’re just thicker and stronger throughout the roster and that means we can play a more physical brand of ball.”
Stark said his squad will need every bit of that brawn against Central Catholic, as the Raiders are physical and fast in both the backfield and the secondary. To Stark, a victory Friday will be a big upset and more meaningful than just a three-seed beating a two-seed.
The Tigers are on the road against a perennial section power that has won a record 18 banners with the chance to reach another section final. And, as Stark is fond to say, “You have to get there before you can win it.”