Northern California Champions!!!
LOOMIS– If there’s one thing that can be learned from watching Del Oro football over the years – no matter what generation – it’s not to count the Golden Eagles out late.
A week after Del Oro’s improbable fumble-recovery touchdown to seal the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division II Championship against Central Catholic, the Golden Eagles used more late-game heroics that will go down in Del Oro lore Friday night at Golden Eagle Stadium in the NorCal 2-AA title game.
Matt Smart – the very same player who scooped and scored on a fumble recovery last week for the game-winner – pulled another rabbit out of his hat with the go-ahead touchdown catch against St. Francis of Mountain View to send the 13-1 Eagles into the State Championship game for the fifth time this decade.
“It’s all just coming down to opportunities and making plays,” said Smart. “We have a lot of heart. If we get pushed, we just keep pushing… I knew the opportunity was coming.”
The opportunity came on the Eagles’ final drive, down by six. Del Oro marched 74 yards downfield, and Carson Jarratt capped off the drive on a 13-yard corner fade to Smart. Ryan Whalley’s extra point gave the Golden Eagles a one-point lead at 14-13 and left it up to the defense to close the game out.
After St. Francis returned the ensuing kickoff all the way across midfield with under a minute to play, the game came down to one final heave from Lancer quarterback Ryan Daly, who floated one in the air long enough for Del Oro’s Dawson Hurst to snatch it and seal the victory for the Golden Eagles, who created a mosh pit at midfield after the game.
“Last year, losing in the section finals hurt us and we didn’t want to feel that again,” said Hurst. “We want this. Our team wants this. It feels great to be a NorCal Champion.”
After winning his first section title for his alma mater last weekend, Del Oro head coach Jeff Walters and company will now compete for a state championship next weekend against Grace Brethren of Simi Valley at Cerritos College Dec. 14 for all the marbles.
“As an alumni, getting the opportunity to come back and lead this program is a dream come true,” said Walters. “To be able to lead us in these last two games and be a part of these kids’ lives... I’m over the moon. It’s pretty surreal.”
The game was a defensive tug-of-war in the first half. A pair of field goals from St. Francis’ Michael Leahy from 39 and 26 yards was the 6-0 difference before halftime.
Neither team moved the chains consistently in the first half. The Del Oro defensive front of Tatuo Martinson, Wyatt Berry, Jared Hill, Cameron Nelson, Carson Westlake, Charlie Rogers and more kept Daly on his toes.
But St. Francis put the first ball in the end zone on the first drive of the third quarter on a Daly-to-Evan Williams pass from 11 yards away to go up 13-0.
Del Oro responded on its ensuing possession when Jarratt hit Smart on a slant pass for a 79-yard score to get the Eagles back in the game at the midpoint of the third.
What could have been a momentous swing for the Golden Eagles ended in a turnover in downs. With the Lancers knocking on the door of the end zone, Del Oro forced a fumble and recovered on their own 3-yard line with three minutes left in the third.
The Eagles’ first play saw Jarratt hook up with Smart on the exact same slant play for 85 yards down to the Lancers’ 12, but Del Oro’s second sideline warning of the game pushed the Eagles back to the 27. Del Oro pushed down to the 19 and elected to go for it on fourth down instead of getting three from the usually sure-footed Whalley. St. Francis held the Eagles for the turnover on downs.
Late-game pressure from Stanford-bound Joshua Pakola forced Jarratt and the Eagles into uncomfortable passing situations. Key third- and fourth-down conversions from the Lancers’ 5-foot-10, 235-pound fullback Opeti Fangupo breathed new life into the St. Francis offense.
But the Eagles’ defense held firm. Leahy’s third field-goal attempt of the night – this time from 36 yards out – bounced off the goal post, keeping the score at 13-7 with nine minutes to play.
“We always talk about never quit, never surrender,” said Walters. “It’s right there in our fight song: ‘Golden Eagles never give in,’ and we believe that around here, that we’ve got a chance no matter what.”
The two teams traded punts before Del Oro began its game-winning drive with under three and a half minutes to go.
“We were up for the challenge and we knew we had to be on our A game to compete with them,” said Jarratt. “I believed in every single guy on the field. I had no doubts when we started that drive.”