Their best player was sidelined for all but one play with an ankle that was tender to the touch, but Trey Udoffia willed himself back into action and delivered a lasting play.
Their leading rusher had to be helped off the field, his legs too sore and battered from a long season, but there was gimpy Dalton Gee helping to ice the game with a late interception.
And yet, somehow, similar to their season, the Del Oro Golden Eagles weathered it all and found a way to prevail.
Using a “Next man up” mantra right to the core, Del Oro beat Rocklin 30-20 on Friday night at Sacramento State to win the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship, a turn of events even the most loyal Golden Eagles follower didn’t dare project at midseason.
Del Oro’s record stood at 2-6 after a 41-3 blowout loss at national powerhouse De La Salle on Oct. 23, but the Golden Eagles coaches sensed something from their crew that night in Concord.
“We competed, and we could live with the result,” Del Oro coach Casey Taylor reflected earlier this week. “We needed to get our swagger back, play with a chip, play Del Oro football again.”
It did and it has, and the winning streak since the 2-6 limp and lurch start is now a hefty and healthy six, including a 4-0 run in the playoffs with at least another week to go as all section champions advance to a NorCal Regional championship game.
Of the 10 section championships Del Oro has won since 1989 in its storied history, this one was the most unlikely. Del Oro had to beat Granite Bay in Week 10 just to secure a playoff, and it did, 17-14, and then backed it up with a 25-17 over those same Grizzlies in a semifinal. Del Oro’s conquest of Rocklin also avenged a 28-3 loss to the Thunder in Loomis on Oct. 9. Rocklin dominated all facets in that first meeting, including the physical aspect. In that short time, Del Oro has grown by leaps and bounds.
Del Oro has won five section titles since 2005 under Taylor, including four this decade to go with two CIF State Bowl bids. Del Oro has stormed to titles with unbeaten teams and it has scratched and clawed to banners, like this one, but the theme never wavered.
“We never stopped believing in our guys,” Taylor said.
That includes the injured ones. Udoffia, the Colorado-bound wide receiver, didn’t practice this week because of that bad wheel. He made one play Friday, but it resonated, a crushing hit from his defensive back position to break up a pass on fourth down with 7:05 left to play and Del Oro holding onto that 30-20 lead.
Gee scored on a pair of two-yard plunges for Del Oro and appeared to be out for the duration when he was helped off the field with the Golden Eagles leading 23-20 late in the third. His late interception stalled one Rocklin drive, and Connor Lehner ended Rocklin’s season a moment later with an interception.
The only ill will in this rivalry rematch was late when Rocklin players tried to blow up Del Oro’s victory formation in an effort to force a turnover, anything to hold onto the season. Players jawed at each other, and Del Oro coaches fumed, but order was restored.
Del Oro’s Stone Smartt passed for 211 yards and hit Mason Hurst for a spectacular 76-yard touchdown for a 23-13 lead in the third quarter. Rocklin’s William Floyd hit Wesley Preece on fourth down from 29 yards out to pull to within 23-20 with 50 seconds left in the third, and Cam Davis put it out of reach for Del Oro with a 43-yard touchdown run, using power and speed. That was with 10:01 left, and Del Oro (8-6) hung on from there.
Evyn Holtz of Rocklin (10-4) rushed for 118 yards in his final game, including a 61-yard touchdown. Floyd passed for 254 yards and two scores in his finale.
The Golden Eagles will find out Sunday whom they will face in a NorCal game.