By Patrick Dillon @PDillon_SGN
ORANGE, CALIF. – Among the collective championships all 18 Tulare County high schools have, one was missing: a football state championship. A mere 52 weeks after the Strathmore Spartans fell six seconds short of victory in the school’s, and county’s, first ever state title game appearance they returned to seek redemption.
As the Spartans had done all year long they rode on the legs of senior running back Joseph Garcia, and when they needed four yards he got them five. With 1:38 left in the D-6AA State Championship the Spartans (16-0, 5-0) clung to a 31-29 lead. On the Panther 37 yard line they were faced with a fourth and four situation. A first down would seal the win with the Orange Panthers (13-3, 3-2) having burned their final timeout.
In an odd reversal of roles Garcia came to the sideline during the break and spoke while the coaches listened. Garcia said he wanted to run grey 26 power. The same play that kept the Spartans’ season alive against Hilmar two weeks earlier.
Garcia came off the right side of the line with more determination than at any point this season. As he fought through one Panther tackler after another he was finally brought down. The ball rested only inches across the first down marker which brought Strathmore’s title home.
“We absolutely rode this guy to a state championship,” Strathmore head coach Jeromy Blackwell said. “I am at a loss. I’ve never heard of a 16-week high school football season, but this football team has done everything that we have asked them to do. This is big time.”
To have a big time moment a team needs a big time player, and in Strathmore it does not get any bigger then Garcia. He rushed for 223 yards and scored all the Spartans four touchdowns. This performance comes one week after rushing for 270 yards and scoring a total of six touchdowns in last week’s Northern California Regional win over St. Patrick- St. Vincent 49-35. He even broke his own school record for total rushing yards for a season with 2,849. All of this for Garcia came down to simply having another shot at the title that was stripped away a season ago.
“We’ve been dreaming about this moment since last year,” Garcia said.
That determination to gain the extra yard was mostly fueled by anger. Not so much at what happened a year ago, but at what Orange started doing the second Strathmore took the field for warmups. Led by Orange’s wide receiver Jordan Schmidt they began jawing at Strathmore players. At one point he even tried to come over onto the Spartans’ side of the field, but was restrained.
“We were already pumped up and that began to make us mad,” Garcia said.
Orange had set the tone for the game. Now all Strathmore had to do was answer, and on their first drive they did just that. From the wildcat formation on the Orange 8 yard line Garcia bobbled the snap. Fortunately the ball bounced straight back up to him. As Garcia grabbed the ball he ran toward the near pylon, and scored the game’s opening touchdown.
Cashing in on their first drive was crucial because if there was one thing that Orange had it was the ability to strike at any time. Their primary method was through the air. Both of those things happened on the Panthers ensuing drive. Faced with a third and six on their own 36 yard line quarterback Jason Wilkinson dropped back to pass. As he scanned the field he found Schmidt on a fade route up the near sideline. He caught the ball in stride and ran it in for a 64-yard score. A two-point conversion later, and the Panthers took the lead 8-7.
The Spartans’ second drive ended in a punt, but it was not long before they had the ball back in their hands. Wilkinson dropped back and tried to convert a fourth down with a slant over the middle of the field. Strathmore’s Noah Alcantar jumped the route and came down with an interception.
Now at midfield the Spartans went back to work. Their running game drove them down to the Orange 20 yard line, but a holding penalty pushed them back to the 24 yard line. One of only six total passes came next. Strathmore shifted quarterback Nick Salas out to the far side of the field and lined up Alonso Acevedo in the wildcat. Immediately Acevedo threw it up to Salas at the 5 yard line. Salas used every bit of his 6-foot-6 frame and hauled the ball over Schmidt to set up first and goal at the 1 yard line. Garcia scored his second touchdown of the half three plays later and added the two-point conversion to make it 15-8.
All half long it seemed when the Spartans scored the Panthers answered. This time it was not a quick score but a slow bleeding drive capped off by a Wilkinson quarterback keeper the scored from two yards out. Joseph Martinez added the two-point conversion give the lead back to Orange 16-15 at the half.
In the first half the Panthers had made it a mission to frustrate the Spartans, pushing players after the play. While they got caught a few times those extra shoves began to catch up with them in the second half.
After both teams had exchanged possessions Strathmore was on the move once again. With the help of a Panther facemask and pass interference penalties they drove within the ten-yard line. After a minimal gain on third down Strathmore was suppose to face a fourth and goal from the 4 yard line. However, an extra shove in the pile by an Orange defender drew a personal foul penalty. One of four personal fouls that Orange drew in the fourth quarter.
While it did not give Strathmore a first down it gave them an extra two yards. From there the Spartan offensive line drove the Panther defense off the line of scrimmage. It was just enough of a surge to give Garcia his third touchdown, and gave the lead back to Strathmore 23-16.
“They had a home run offense, but we have an offense that we will keep coming right at you,” said Spartan offensive line man Jadon Guire.
That home run offense struck again on the Panthers ensuing drive. Wilkinson and Schmidt connected again for their second big play of the game. It was another fade route that Schmidt took 71 yards to pay dirt. Yet Strathmore stopped the two-point conversion to keep the lead 23-22.
It was because of that big play when Strathmore made their only adjustment on defense. The Spartan corner backs had been playing up close to the line of scrimmage to disrupt the receiver’s routes. Blackwell moved his defenders five yards back to keep everything in front of his defenders.
“We knew if we could keep it all underneath us that we would be fine,” Blackwell said.
The adjustment worked to perfection. Early in the fourth quarter Orange was backed up deep inside their own zone after another 15-yard personal foul penalty. With the Spartan defenders now playing off that lured them to try sideways passes. In the hopes that their athleticism could break another big play, but Strathmore’s defense did not let anything by. Their pursuit to the football caused the Panthers to lose seven yards on that drive and eventually punted.
Garcia eventually turned that punt into his fourth touchdown on a five-yard run up the near side line. That made the score 31-22 the biggest lead by either team during the game. However, if not for another fourth down conversion the outcome may had been different. The Spartans lined up for a fourth and five on the Panthers’ 13 yard line. Instead of kicking a field goal Blackwell decided to keep doing what had gotten them this far: hand it off to Garcia and let him work. Undoubtedly Garcia came through gaining six yards off the right edge of the line.
“This guy is clutch. When the game is on the line you put it in Garcia’s hands,” Blackwell said.
With less than three minutes left Orange was able to find the end zone again to make it the final score, but never got the ball back. Amando Rodriguez recovered the onside kick and the Spartans ran out the clock.
“We just showed everyone what us valley boys can do,” Guire said.