The moment and meaning hit Jeff Walters like a forearm to the chops.
His team won. He won. The town of Loomis won. The burden of tremendous expectation was whisked away in the cool air, and perhaps wiped away with the spiffy new Sac-Joaquin Section championship banner.
The Del Oro High School football coach, in a blur of emotions, thought of the time his players put into all of this season, and he thought of his mother. With Central Catholic attempting to run out the clock on Saturday afternoon at Sacramento State, Del Oro needed a stop, a turning play, and it got it.
Matthew Smart scooped up a fumble, juked a guy, and then bolted 42 yards into the end zone with 1:52 left, and Dante Pericin a moment later sealed it with a midfield interception for a stunning 20-17 victory in a Division II title game of storied programs.
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It’s the 12th section championship for Del Oro, and it’s the first for Walters, in his second season coaching his alma mater.
“It’s something I dreamed of growing up in Loomis, to win a championship,” Walters said, choking back tears. “I feel blessed, honored. The moment is overwhelming. I’m so proud of our kids. I’m one proud and happy coach.
“To be able to add to the history of this great program ... we are still Del Oro. We still do what we do.”
What Del Oro does is produce powerhouse teams, backed by administrative and community support. It’s common for fans young and old to line the streets of Loomis to send their football heroes off.
The principal is Dan Gayaldo, the one-time coach at Lincoln, who understands what a football program can do for a school and community. Gayaldo was paramount with his support when Casey Taylor won six section titles in nine title-game appearances at Del Oro.
When Taylor left following the 2016 season for a new challenge at Capital Christian, Gayaldo hired Walters, brought him home and told him to do what he does. Del Oro players and coaches pleaded for Gayaldo to join them in the post-game team picture on Saturday. He finally agreed, plopping down in front of the team, saying, ‘I’ll do a slammer!’ ”
For Del Oro, it’s a family feel, team deal.
Del Oro won the 2016 section title at Sac State over Inderkum in part due to a dramatic defensive touchdown. Hunter Halverson picked up a fumble and rumbled into the end zone to turn the game into his team’s favor.
The Golden Eagles returned to the section finals last season but fell to rival Granite Bay. Seventeen starters returned for the Golden Eagles, who moved to 12-1 on the season and hope to host a CIF Northern California Division I-AA playoff game next week.
Walters wondered if Del Oro’s sudden victory from what was starting to feel like defeat included something of a higher order in play, and he wasn’t talking about the rain drops. He mentioned John Flethcer, the late-great coach who was the co-coach with Bob Christiansen when Del Oro started winning its string of section crowns in 1989.
Fletcher died this fall from cancer.
And Walters recalled the plight and courage of his mother, Jena. She died of cancer when Walters was just a boy. He thinks of her every single day. His young daughter bears her name.
Athletics helped provide normalcy for Walters growing up, and then he was determined to get into coaching to impact young lives.
“Mom taught me so much, about overcoming adversity,” Walters said. “To be a 10-year old boy and watching your mom die ... very hard. She’s smiling down.”
Del Oro looked like a team that came into Hornet Stadium with a bit of rust on its engines, having last played on Nov. 9 — 23 days ago. The Golden Eagles did not play in a section semifinal because Jesuit had to forfeit for unknowingly using an ineligible player in two playoff victories.
The Camp Fire that scorched some 154,000 acres in Butte County postponed a week of playoff action, too. Del Oro was out of sorts at times against Central Catholic, and the Raiders of Modesto are also quite good, having won a section record 19 banners.
Del Oro managed two field goals – booming shots of 41 and 30 yards by Ryan Whalley — in the first three and a half quarters. Carson Jarratt hit Dawson Hurst with a 9-yard touchdown to pull Del Oro to within 17-12 with 6:28 to play. Hurst is a three-year starter and a program stalwart, following in the footsteps of older brothers who excelled at Del Oro.
Smart added the exclamation point. Pericin stripped the ball and Smart pounced.
“I saw the ball pop loose, got it and thought, ‘I’m going to the end zone!’ ” Smart said. “Everything just slowed down on that play.”
Said Walters, “I saw Matt pick it up and thought, ‘he’s got a shot to score!’ Then the fundamental part of me started to think, ‘put both hands on the ball!’ What a play. We needed it.”