Strathmore heads to unprecedented third straight state championship appearance this Saturday at Hilmar High School
By Patrick Dillon @PDillon_SGN
STRATHMORE – The Spartans continue to set the benchmark for football in Tulare County, and now prepare for an unprecedented third straight state championship game appearance. Only the De La Salle Spartans have had more continuous appearances in the finals at 12. For Strathmore however, their third just might be their toughest yet as they must play an opponent who is out for revenge. This Saturday, Strathmore (13-1, 5-1) will take on the Hilmar Yellowjackets (12-2, 4-2) at Hilmar High School (7807 Lander Ave, Hilmar, CA 95324) for the Division 6AA State Championship. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m.
Strathmore and Hilmar met last year when both teams had to compete in what is known as a play-in game in order to advance to Division 6AA Northern Regional Championship. It is the equivalent of a semi-final round, and only occurs when there are two many section champions to regional game slots. The Spartans snuck out their closest win of the 2018 season in a 53-52 double overtime thriller.
Quarterback Nick Salas used every bit of his 6-foot, 6-inch frame to stretch out over the goal line to bring the Spartans within one, 52-51, in the second overtime. The decision was already made by Blackwell to go for two instead of kicking an extra point. Strathmore gave the ball to Joseph Garcia off the right edge for the conversion, and the win.
“We stole that game from them last year, and that is fresh in their minds,” Strathmore head coach Jeromy Blackwell said.
Hilmar’s Isaac Sharp is one of the returning Yellowjackets who will have last season’s game on his mind for all 48 minutes of this Saturday’s title game. Sharp is once again their leading rusher after churning out 1,606 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns on 150 carriers. Even though he was held out of the end zone, Sharp’s 18 carries for 160 yards in a 48-14 win over the East Nicolaus Spartans in the Northern Regional Championship was his third best performance this season.
Treven Crowley is another returning Yellowjacket who will have payback on his mind, and it seems he is peaking at the right time. Last week he helped turn all of East Nicolaus’ five turnovers into points by going 11-21 for 134 yards and five touchdowns.
All of Hilmar seems to be peaking in the postseason. In four games they have outscored their opponents 177-53. That is an average of 31 points a game, and it seems Hilmar has something special in store for Strathmore.
Front Row Preps reported Hilmar’s Justin Rentfro saying, “I can’t wait for revenge. That one hurt. 53-52, I’ll never forget that score. We’ll have anger in our eyes.”
Hilmar might be out for revenge but Strathmore will be guided by their experience. Now in his third straight trip to the title game, Blackwell is treating Saturday’s game like any other week, and trying to not let the emotions get to him or his players. That message was reinforced by Blackwell’s old college coach, former Fresno State Bulldogs head coach Pat Hill. “It’s only the biggest game of the week,” Hill wrote in a text message to Blackwell.
“We are going to treat it like any other of the past fourteen weeks we’ve had,” Blackwell said.
The two players who propelled Strathmore over Hilmar in their first meeting, Garcia and Salas, may be gone but the Spartans still have enough talent to do more than contend.
Alonso Acevedo is on the cusp of becoming the second 2,000-yard rusher in two years for Strathmore. He has carried the ball 203 times for 1,799 yards and scored 32 touchdowns.
On Saturday don’t expect a high scoring affair since Strathmore’s defense has been a real difference maker this season. Led by four year starter Damian Valencia and his 100 tackles, their defense has been unbreakable. In their four playoff games they have held their opponents to an average of eight points. Strathmore has only let two teams score over 20 points the entire season. One of those being a 38-20 loss to the Woodlake Tigers. A game which Blackwell states as a real turning point in the season.
“Since that Woodlake loss we have been focused and have matured a lot,” Blackwell said.