Story by DAMIN ESPER | Photos by NORBERT VON DER GROEBEN
The final 30 seconds were running off of the clock at San Jose City College. Del Oro High School’s offense was lining up in the “victory” formation for one final kneel down by quarterback Stone Smartt. Mason Hurst, deep in the backfield in the “safety” position started clapping his hands.
The Golden Eagles were about to finish off a 16-14 win on the road against a tough Bellarmine-San Jose team. With 17 starters returning, including seven players in their third season as starters, this Del Oro team could be one of the best in school history. That’s pretty impressive considering the Golden Eagles have won 10 Sac-Joaquin Section championships “” five of which have come in coach Casey Taylor’s 14-plus seasons leading the program.
“We definitely have got a lot of games under our belt,” Hurst said following that Sept. 9 win in San Jose. “Seventeen guys played 16 weeks last year. That means a lot. Talent and experience is everything for us.”
Added Smartt, “We’ve got a lot of experience and I think that’s a key to our game.”
That experience was on display against the Bells on Sept. 9. Del Oro got out to a 16-0 lead in the first half on a 1-yard touchdown run by Camrion Davis and a 52-yard touchdown pass from Smartt to Hurst. Feeling frisky, on both scores the Golden Eagles went for two, setting up most of its players near the sideline with just the center, quarterback and an end in the middle of the field before shifting on both conversions. The Bells didn’t know what to do with the plays and Del Oro converted both times.
But the Golden Eagles also left points on the board in the first half, in Taylor’s words, having a couple of drives stall and missing a pair of field goals. In the second half, Bellarmine came back, driving down the field once and then taking advantage of a big punt return to set up Ike Ogbogu’s 19-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper. With seven minutes, 37 seconds to go in the game, Bellarmine called timeout to set up a potential game-tying two-point conversion.
Del Oro was ready. Senior defensive tackle Israel Luna along with junior Andrew Birch swarmed Ogbogu for the sack to preserve the lead.
“The coaches always tell us, ‘Re-rack it, re-rack it,’ like we’re in the weight room,” Luna said. “If you can’t get it, re-rack it. Keep doing it. They scored on us, we knew we had to get back in the fight and get this W.”
Said Taylor, “I think last year, we would have found a way to lose this game early on. And we did last year against Bellarmine as a matter of fact, we were up and found a way to lose.”
That resiliance was developed last year when the Golden Eagles started 2-6 (including a 34-31 loss to the Bells). The final indignity came by a score of 41-3 at perennial power De La Salle-Concord.
“We kind of went through some hard times last year,” Taylor said. “But as a matter of fact, probably the turning point for us was the De La Salle game. We challenged our guys that week ““ ‘Do you really want to play? Do you want to play eight more weeks? It’s still set up where you could still win a state title.’ We felt we played with De La Salle. I don’t know about physically, but I thought we played experienced football even though we got beat. Our guys weren’t quitting or making excuses.
“I think that really turned our program around. Just doing the little things right.”
And then some. Del Oro won its final eight games, blowing through the playoffs and winning the California Interscholastic Federation Division II-AA championship by beating previously unbeaten Camarillo, 16-13.
“That team had been talked about for many years,” Hurst said. “We thought we were just going to go out and it would happen, we wouldn’t really have to make it happen. We knew we had the talent, we just couldn’t put the pieces together. We just started clicking and the difference between the first eight weeks and the last eight weeks were huge.”
Now the expectations are sky-high again.
“What we’re trying to focus on is we’ve really got to enjoy the process, enjoy the ride,” Taylor said. “Not get too caught up on Week 16. We can’t control that. A lot’s got to happen, we’ve got to get better every week.”