Strathmore High had waited and worked 52 weeks for its shot at redemption.
The Spartans were back in the state championship and determined not to settle for another runner-up finish.
“I think that put a lot of hunger into these kids all year,” Strathmore coach Jeromy Blackwell said of losing the state title game last year. “These guys, they were ready to go after it.”
Despite running just four types of plays, Strathmore kept Orange off balance enough to hold on for a 31-29 victory and capture the CIF State Division 6-AA title Saturday night at El Modena High in Orange.
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Senior running back Joseph Garcia ran 40 times for 223 yards and four touchdowns, including an 8-yard scoring run with 4:54 remaining that with a 2-point conversion made it 31-22 and provided just enough cushion for the Spartans (16-0).
“We run only four plays, but we can run it with unconscious competence,” Blackwell said. “We pounded the ball. And when people are gashing you in the middle, right down the heart of the defense, it starts to wear on you mentality.”
That smash-mouth approached also helped Garcia convert on fourth-and-inches in the final minutes to prevent Orange (13-3) from gaining another possession.
The critical play was preceded by Garcia persuading Blackwell to run the ball toward the right after the initial play-call was for a run to the left.
“He had that look in his eyes and we said ‘We’re riding Joseph Garcia,’ ” Blackwell said. “He’s a violent runner, an amazing back.
“When the game’s on the line, we knew whose hands we wanted to put the ball it. And we rode Garcia to a state championship.”
As Strathmore celebrated, Blackwell reminded his players of their journey, which included losing 29-28 to St. Patrick/St. Vincent-Vallejo in the 6-A final last season – the Spartans’ only loss in 31 games during the past two years.
All they did was go out and win fans in the Tulare County community of 2,800 all over again.
It appeared, on video posted on the Strathmore High Facebook page, as if most of the town showed up Saturday morning to send off players, coaches and more on the 3-hour drive to Orange County.
“We know how it is: Sometimes people judge you where you’re from,” Blackwell said. “We’re Strathmore – a town of 2,500 people somewhere in the middle of California.
“And it’s it amazing that we can say we’re state champions.”