Clayton Valley Charter put it all together in 2014, going 15-1 and winning its first CIF NorCal Bowl
The waiting was the hardest part.
Senior linebacker and running back Jax Carter led the Clayton Valley Charter football team on the dark and twisty walk behind the stadium. He carried the flag and took it all in. He could hear the clack of his teammates’ cleats on the pavement behind him and the cheers of Eagles fans who had turned around from the top row of the bleachers to cheer the team on. He could see his breath in front of him.
Carter took a final right and led his team underneath a covered pathway which led to the mouth of an inflatable Eagle’s head. The team filled in behind him.
And they waited.
For more than 10 minutes, the Ugly Eagles, as they are affectionately known, were held hostage as technical problems prevented their entrance song from playing over the public address system. The players stirred, and fidgeted. The clock ticked closer to zero, closer to what would be the start of the California Interscholastic Federation Division II Northern Regional bowl game.
One of the cheerleaders lined up just outside the tunnel was asked sarcastically, “This never happens to you guys, right?”
“Oh, no. Never,” she quipped.
Then the beat dropped. The speaker tower next to the tunnel shuddered. The home crowd erupted and a few seconds later Clayton Valley sprinted on to its home black turf for the last time in 2014.
Riding its dominant shotgun double-wing running attack led by dynamic tailback Miles Harrison, and a defense which has saved its best football for December, the Eagles pounded out a 28-7 win over Oakdale. In doing so, the Concord school punched its ticket to the big dance — the CIF Div. II Bowl Championship on Dec. 20 against Redlands East Valley-Redlands.
“We finally accomplished what we’ve been dreaming of since the beginning of the season,” said Harrison, who finished the night with 233 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries. “It actually happened. It’s crazy.”
It was indeed a dream that began at the beginning of the season. For some of the seniors, it was born earlier than that. For the full roster, though, the goal of reaching the state bowl games was solidified in the preseason with wristbands that read “Carson to Carson.” Clayton Valley’s season-opening opponent was Carson Valley (NV.) at The Honor Bowl showcase event at Del Oro High in Loomis. The CIF Bowl games occur at the Stub Hub Center in Carson.
“This is our destiny,” Clayton Valley coach Tim Murphy told the team in his pregame address inside the team’s weight room. ‘It’s been on our wrist for four months. We are one game away. Making a wristband that says ‘Carson to Carson’ is almost stupid if you think about it. But you guys have worn the wristband and you’ve earned every bit of where you’re at right now.”
The waiting ended for Murphy too that night. He was the coach of Clovis East during the first year of the CIF Bowl games when there were no regional play-in bowls. That year he saw his 11-1 Central Section championship team passed over when the committee of CIF commissioners voted on the Div. I Bowl representative for the South. The committee chose Canyon-Canyon Country, which would upset De La Salle-Concord 27-13.
Six years later, in his first year at Clayton Valley, Murphy led the 2012 Eagles to the school’s first ever North Coast Section title. That was the first year of regional bowl games and Clayton Valley got an invite to play none other than Oakdale at a neutral site in Stockton. That night, the Mustangs prevailed 27-24.
“To finally know that you’ve made it (to the state games), and there’s no vote and there’s no anything and you’re just going, is a great feeling,” the coach said afterward.
The Eagles captured their first NorCal bowl title with an unblemished 15-0 record and an offense that has produced 785 points (52.3 per game). Defense and special teams have
Six different backs have surpassed 500 yards rushing in the Eagles offense, but Harrison is unquestionably both the catalyst and workhorse. In 13 games, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound back has rushed 200 times for 2,380 yards and 29 TDs.
“Half the time I don’t get to see what he does because I’m blocking for him,” Carter said of Harrison. “But it always feels good when you’re blocking for someone and you see a
flash of white or black or gray go by and then you hear the fans going crazy.”
Clayton Valley’s success can’t only be attributed to Harrison. The team has called on junior quarterback Nate Kiesel to throw the ball just 95 times in 15 games, but he’s completed 61 with 19 touchdowns and just one interception. Senior receiver Justin Zapanta has caught 12 passes for 413 yards and a ridiculous yards-per-catch average of 34.4.
What has seemingly set this Eagles team apart from its predecessors, though, is a defense that grows stingier by the week. Oakdale had just eight possessions in the NorCal bowl match. Five of those possessions either ended in turnovers on downs or interceptions. At the conclusion of the game, Clayton Valley’s defense had allowed just 16 points over its last 12 quarters of play.
“One guy misses a tackle and it doesn’t matter,” Carter said. “Two or three more guys are going to come up right behind him. It’s gang tackling and pursuit to the ball. Eleven hats to the ball, that’s our motto.”
Carter was a part of the 2012 team which came up three points shy of reaching the state’s biggest high school football stage. He also remembers his freshman year when something like these last three years seemed like the kinds of success he and his friends could only dream up in their back yards.
“If you’d have told me when I was a freshman, before Coach Murphy arrived, that when I was a senior I was going to play in a state championship, I would’ve friggin’ punched you in the face and called you a liar,” Carter said demonstratively.
Murphy, who believed the 2012 team let down after its emotional NCS championship victory the week before, isn’t concerned about a similar scenario with this team now that it’s charted new ground for the program.
“I think it’s going to be a bright-eyed situation when they first step in the stadium,” the coach said. “But I think this group can handle it. I just hope they can handle the team that they line up across.”
In its preparation, the team will also have to brush off any noise surrounding reports of Clayton Valley’s athletics program being placed on probation toward the end of October after errors made by the football program led to infractions surrounding transfers. More than likely, this will only bring a tight-knit group of players closer together.
“We’re all like brothers,” Harrison said. “Way more than previous teams. We play our hardest and we play for each other.”
And their wait is over.
Carter may have said it best.
“It’s got to come to an end eventually, but we get to end it on our terms.”
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