Casey Taylor had it made in Loomis. Jeff Walters was in a good spot in Brentwood.
Then the coaches following the 2016 season left safe havens for new challenges, intertwined then and now.
Taylor became the Capital Christian High School coach, having won six Sac-Joaquin Section championships over 15 seasons with Del Oro. Walters replaced Taylor, leaving a growing giant of a program at Liberty High for the comforts of home.
Walters is a Del Oro graduate, a former Golden Eagles player who got his coaching start under Taylor, and Walters is a man who often says coaching at his alma mater is “living the dream.”
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Content with their decisions from the start, the coaches now seek to extend their seasons with some championship hardware in tow.
Walters leads top-seeded Del Oro (11-1) against No. 2 Central Catholic of Modesto in the Division II section title game Saturday afternoon at Sacramento State. Later that evening, Taylor and top-seeded Capital Christian take on No. 2 Placer at Whitney High School for the D-III crown in a battle of 12-0 teams.
Taylor capped his Del Oro run with back-to-back Northern California championships and a CIF State title. He had won all there was to win in Placer County. Capital Christian tugged at him for years. He finally gave in, though speculation that Taylor earns in excess of $100,000 a year and drives any fancy car he wants, courtesy of the school, is false.
“Two years ago, I made the tough decision to leave, one the hardest days of my life,” Taylor said Monday at a coaches breakfast in Lodi. “It’s been a great journey at Capital. I see Capital as a sports mission.”
Capital Christian was eliminated in a Division V playoff opener last season by eventual champion Bear River. It was a humbling experience for Taylor and his upstart Cougars who expected a title run.
It was also the “best thing that ever happened to us,” Taylor said.
“When my son, our ball boy (Jackson Taylor) asks after the game, ‘Hey Dad, how’d you get exposed?’ you know there’s work to do,” Taylor said with a laugh. “Our deal was our players didn’t love each other. They do now.”
All section champions advance to a CIF NorCal Regional championship game at home sites. Should Del Oro prevail Saturday, it could draw Liberty, a program Walters helped elevate from sad sack to rising power.
The Lions are a sudden powerhouse now, ranked third in Northern California by MaxPreps behind De La Salle and Folsom, and rated No. 8 in the state by CalHi Sports. Liberty was 2-8 before Walters took over in 2012. By his second season, the Lions posted a 9-3 showing and were back-to-back playoff contestants for the first time.
The school, opened in 1902, reached the playoffs for the first time in 1996. Liberty last season won the program’s first North Coast Section championship. At 11-0 this season, the Lions have a shot to halt De La Salle’s 299-game NorCal unbeaten streak Saturday in the NCS Open Division title game (both teams will advance to NorCals as Open Division finalists).
“There was only one school I would have left Liberty for, and that was Del Oro,” Walters said Monday.. “It was the hardest decision to make, but I’m glad I made it. I grew up wanting to be No. 12. I wanted to be Randy Fasani.”
Fasani is Del Oro’s greatest player, a section champion from the mid 1990s who played at Stanford and in the NFL. He is now the offensive coordinator at Ripon Christian, which plays this weekend for the section D-VI championship against Hilmar.
Taylor grew up in El Dorado Hills and wanted to compete in anything. He then was hooked on coaching.
He elevated Capital Christian from small-school power to just plain power. The Cougars are competing in D-III for the first time after years of success at D-V or VI. Taylor said he invites the pressure to excel, not once second-guessing his decision to leave. He continues to wish success for the Del Oro players he once worked with.
Walters said he would have been naive not to feel pressure in replacing Taylor, but he said the pressure is really rooted in being the best leader he can be.
In 2017, Walters used Del Oro’s familiar offensive scheme that Taylor installed years earlier to maintain a semblance of continuity, while also keeping a core of the old coaching staff. Del Oro bounced Inderkum and Central Catholic in the playoffs last season before falling to Granite Bay in the section final.
This season, the Golden Eagles run a spread offense that includes 296 plays, not that the team has used every one of them.
Carson Jarratt has passed for 1,504 yards and 16 touchdowns. Sheldon Conde has rushed for 1,012 yards and 14 scores while Aiden Foster has reached the end zone nine times. Dawson Hurst has six touchdown receptions for Del Oro.
At Capital, Taylor has the best running back he has ever coached, one with recruiting interest from across the country..
D’Marcus Ross has rushed for 1,978 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, and he’s gone for 5,265 yards and 77 scores (and 103 touchdowns total) for his career.
Cooper Crick has passed for 1,808 yards and 23 touchdowns, 10 of those to Trey Jones, one of the team’s emotional and physical leaders.
The other coaches – Taylor will on Saturday night counter Placer coach Joey Montoya, a graduate of the school who played for Mike Sabins, now one of his trusted assistants.
Montoya said he felt pressure when he took over 12 seasons ago, including the fact that his famed grandfather, Bill Miller, led the Hillmen to record heights in the 1970s and early ’80s as coach.
“It’s special to coach at your old school,” Montoya said. “This is the only place I want to be.”
Walters will counter Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa, one of the section’s great personalities and most decorated champions.
A 200-game winner, Canepa has four CIF State championship rings to his credit, each achieved at the smaller-school level this decade. Central Catholic is in the D-II playoffs for the third consecutive season, showing all along that it clearly can compete at any level.
Canepa jokes that he’s not bright enough to coach, which isn’t true. He jokes because he garners laughs, sometimes at his own expense.
In 2014, when his Raiders won a CIF Division IV state title in Carson, Canepa cradled the championship hardware in his left arm and held up three fingers on his right hand. That’s all he could hold up after losing the pinky on that hand from a well-drilling accident decades before.
“One for the thumb!” Canepa said then, the punchline being his right hand could only hold four rings. Looking at his players, he added, “You guys are just jealous because I’m the only guy who can do this!”
Sac-Joaquin Section football championships
Division I (Sacramento State)
No. 1 Folsom vs. No. 2 Monterey Trail, 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Division II (Sacramento State)
No. 1 Del Oro vs. No. 2 Central Catholic, 2 p.m. Saturday
Division III (Whitney High School)
No. 1 Capital Christian vs. No. 2 Placer, 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Division IV (Whitney High School)
No. 1 Rio Linda vs. No. 3 Casa Roble, 2 p.m. Saturday
Division V (Nevada Union High School)
No. 1 Colfax vs. No. 3 Bear River, 7 p.m. Friday
Division VI (Turlock High School)
No. 2 Hilmar vs. No. 4 Ripon Christian, 7 p.m. Friday
No. 1 Denair beat No. 3 Golden Sierra 43-21 for the title on Nov. 24.