The ride back wasn’t just bearable.
It was festive and fun, the bus rollicking as players sang, cheered and chanted about a season they refuse to let stall out.
The Del Oro Golden Eagles would have gladly played a football game in Tijuana if it meant holding onto a high school season that seemed doomed and headed for the ditch in late October, but they gladly settled for a 300-mile, five-hour trek to Bakersfield.
There, Del Oro rallied from a 21-7 third-quarter deficit against a fast and formidable foe in a Liberty outfit dotted with scholarship talent on both sides of the ball. The Golden Eagles prevailed 28-24 for the CIF Northern California Division II-AA Regional Championship when Stone Smartt dove in for a quarterback keeper with 22 seconds remaining. Del Oro made one last defensive stand, and the celebration started and didn’t end until the weary crew arrived in Loomis early Saturday.
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“Awesome, exciting, proud,” Del Oro coach Casey Taylor said on that bus ride, still out of breath a good 40 minutes after it was over. “Liberty was so good – big, fast, physical, but we made plays. Stone made a lot of plays.”
A 4.0 student, Smartt overcame two interceptions to keep his team in it, and he masterfully engineered an 86-yard drive in the final moments. He hit Mason Hurst for a 33-yard touchdown, scored on a three-yard run and typified his team’s grit and guile.
Del Oro had the longest bus trip of any team in this NorCal postseason, but that seemed almost fitting considering the steep climb the Golden Eagles endured.
In facing perhaps the state’s most daunting schedule – including out-of-state heavies, San Jose power Bellarmine and national power De La Salle, not to mention a Sierra Foothill League that included Folsom, Oak Ridge and Rocklin – Del Oro was 2-6 on Oct. 23.
It has since won seven consecutive games, making history along the way. The Golden Eagles became the first team in Sac-Joaquin Section history to win a championship with six losses, and the first team in state history to win a regional title with that many setbacks as Taylor cemented his status as one of the greatest coaches in regional history. He kept Del Oro together when the losses and injuries and a bout of in-fighting nearly unraveled the team.
Taylor is the first local coach to lead three teams to a CIF Bowl game, all since 2011, and the biggest challenge of all looms. Del Oro will face 15-0 Camarillo for the DII-AA championship on Friday at 4 p.m. at Sacramento State. And this added fact: Del Oro is 4-0 all-time at Sac State, each a section championship victory since 2010. Sac State won the state-wide bidding competition to host the CIF State Bowls for upper-division games after Carson had hosted the games since the Bowls started in 2008.
A regional team has made a Bowl every season: Grant winning in 2008, Folsom in 2010 and 2016, Granite Bay in 2012, and Del Oro and Rocklin advancing a combined four times but coming up short.
“We’ll be ready,” Taylor said, “and we’ll compete.”
Fun to the finish – The CIF’s new expanded NorCal playoff system pitted teams against each other based on competitive equity and not enrollment, and guess what? It worked.
Friday night offered scores of games that went to the wire, including Bellarmine of San Jose holding off Folsom 42-35 in the Division I-AA game and Campolindo of Moraga edging Milpitas 27-24 on a late field goal in Division III-AA play.
The expansion also worked because it allowed Del Oro to advance, when in previous formats the Golden Eagles would have been left out of NorCal play despite being a section champion because of too many losses. Expansion allowed East Nicolaus to advance when the old format likely would have left that Northern Section small-school champion out. The Spartans backed it up with a 34-14 Division VI-A title triumph over Stone Ridge Christian of Merced as Donovan Switalski and Eddie Herrera had big games.
CIF executive director Roger Blake said his goal is to provide a “wow” experience for all section champions, meaning a chance to play in a regional game.
The CIF soundly succeeded.
Bellarmine beasts – After watching Bellarmine impressively rally in the closing seconds to beat Del Oro in Loomis on Sept. 11 behind quarterback star Troy Martig, I came away thinking, “That’s a CIF Bowl team.” The Bells are in a CIF Bowl for the third time under longtime coach Mike Janda. After snapping Folsom’s state-leading 30-game winning streak, Bellarmine seeks to snap another run as it braces for Mission Viejo’s now-state-leading 27-game streak in the State DI-AA title game on Friday night at Sac State.
Richardson perspective – An example of being wise beyond his years, Folsom right tackle Kooper Richardson impressed his parents with a gesture off the field. The senior informed parents Kelly and Kris (his Bulldogs coach) that he’d prefer to escort a date to the special-needs prom “Evening of Dreams” in the spring rather than go to Disneyland for a senior trip. “Evening of Dreams” is an inspiring event put together by the equally impressive Character Combine, which scores of regional football players attend.
Richardson’s rationale? He can go to Disneyland anytime. “Evening of Dreams” is a lifetime experience.