Their playoff hopes were on fumes and a prayer coming in.
Now there’s a surging pulse and more than a fighting chance to keep tradition alive.
Elk Grove High School offered up glimpses of some of its storied program magic on Friday night, beating No. 9 Franklin 30-26 at Cosumnes Oaks in a Delta League contest the Thundering Herd absolutely had to win to salvage a season of high hopes.
The team has been ravaged so badly by injuries that one has to sift through the ice packs and crutches to find any standing key seniors. Two of them played a big role here.
Devon Frazier opened the scoring with a 3-yard run, added a 67-yard scoring burst and finished with 144 yards rushing, and two-way terror George Spithorst set an emotional and exhaustive tone with his typical relentless play at tight end and linebacker as one guy who was not about to allow an ounce of defeat.
A late midfield stand led to a refreshing Herd victory formation and, a moment later, a fight-song tune for the Elk Grove fans used to such things.
At 5-5 overall and 4-2 in league play, this victory very well could ensure the Thundering Herd advances to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs for the 32nd time, a remarkable feat of staying power, especially since it’s all happened since 1984.
Elk Grove can seal a playoff berth for certain with a victory at home next Friday against No. 8 Sheldon. Franklin (6-3, 3-3) has already clinched a playoff spot.
And one thing about injuries. No one weeps for the heavies, and Elk Grove has been a heavy for decades, nevermind the change of coaches, change of offenses and change of surroundings with so many new schools propping up since the mid-1990s.
“You don’t get any sympathy,” Thundering Herd coach John Heffernan said of injuries or losses. “All you can do is just compete. Play as hard as you can, win or lose. Don’t dwell and worry about anything. There’s no time to worry.”
Asked if this was the worst rash of injuries he has encountered in his 20 years in area coaching, including the previous 19 at Burbank, Heffernan sighed.
“The worst,” he said. “We started the season with 55 guys. We’re down to 36 or 37, and we lost a couple to grades. We tell the guys it’s a process, and we keep working, and the games are the end of that week’s process.”
Heffernan installed the triple-option at Elk Grove, a run-heavy scheme that rewarded Burbank well in his tenure there.
The Herd had an ideal quarterback at the controls for the first half of the season with Jake Jordan, but he was lost for the season on Oct. 6 with a knee strain that is not deemed serious enough to prevent him and Spithorst from leading a four-peat section championship charge in baseball.
“That killed us, losing Jake,” Heffernan said. “He’s a competitor. It drives him crazy to not be out there. But we have backups.”
Devin Sullivan showed he was up for the task at quarterback against Franklin, including hitting Frazier for a 40-yard touchdown to pull to within 26-24. Jaden Burns made it 30-26 with a 1-yard scoring plunge with 6:52 left.
Kazual Pride’s 78-yard punt return gave Elk Grove an 18-6 lead.
Franklin was led by Brandon Rundgren touchdown passes to Daniel Ross and Brandon Johnson.
Coaches feel for each other. Franklin coach Mike Johnson said, “I feel bad for John Heffernan. The injury bug has kicked his tail. We’ve all lost guys. It’s hard to replace some of them.”