Joseph Garcia was just a mocoso, a Spanish word for kid used by Robert Garza when he went into the home of Garcia’s parents and recruited the future star running back as a third-grader to help relaunch Strathmore’s youth football program in 2008.
Nick Salas, the current Strathmore High School quarterback and stepson to Garza, was in the same grade but too young to play youth football, so he came on board a season later.
And when Andres Lara, a two-way terror at tight end and defensive end, joined as a sixth-grader, a core group was formed now made up of juniors who have helped produce the greatest season in the 98-year history of Strathmore football.
That season – which stands at 14-0, a school record according to section historian Bob Barnett, with East Sequoia League, Central Section and Southern California Regional titles already in hand – will end Saturday when the Spartans host St. Patrick/St. Vincent-Vallejo for the CIF State Division 6-A championship. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. at what promises to be an overflowing Spartans Stadium.
“Not very many teams make it this far, especially in Tulare County and in this little town and school of Strathmore, California,” Salas said. “It’s truly a blessing to have a great coaching staff and to play this far with the guys that I love.”
The seeds that grew into Strathmore’s present success were planted eight years ago when Garza, a former Spartans player and longtime assistant under 16-year coach Jeromy Blackwell, led the effort to bring youth football back to the eastern Tulare County community of roughly 2,800. The feeder program runs the same formations and plays as the high school team.
Not very many teams make it this far, especially in Tulare County and in this little town and school of Strathmore, California. It’s truly a blessing to have a great coaching staff and to play this far with the guys that I love.
Strathmore junior quarterback Nick Salas, who will help lead the Spartans into Saturday’s CIF State Division 6-A football final against visiting St. Patrick/St. Vincent-Vallejo
“We would see that we didn’t have sometimes the amount of talent that other surrounding communities had that had young groups starting to come up,” Garza said. “So, we were talking about restarting the youth program, and (Blackwell) said we really need this.”
That meant Garza went to work rebuilding a youth program that had been dormant for six years. His first team featured 23 players (many of whom are juniors and seniors this season) and won one game.
They won three games in 2009, five in 2010, six in 2011 and seven in 2012 as the players advanced from pee-wees to juniors to seniors in youth football.
Then came the big breakthrough, a 10-win season and a berth in the Sequoia League championship game in 2013 when Garcia, Salas, Lara and the rest of the high school Class of 2018 were eighth-graders.
That performance brought a promise from Garza.
“Garza had told us if we stick together and keep playing how we’re playing that we’ll come out in high school and win a Valley championship,” said Garcia, who delivered 277 rushing yards and three touchdowns as the Spartans did just that with a 46-20 victory over Sierra Pacific on Dec. 2 for the D-VI section title.
Garcia was one of eight sophomores brought up to varsity last season after an 8-2 season as freshmen on the junior varsity in 2014. Strathmore went 6-6 last season and reached the D-VI quarterfinals, whetting the players’ appetite for more.
“We’ve been talking about it since last year, that we’ve got to win one,” Garcia said. “We came out, and we worked our butts off and got a Valley championship. (But) we didn’t think about coming to state. We didn’t know we were going to get this far.”
The Spartans got this far largely thanks to Garcia and an offensive line consisting of right tackle Luke Raya, right guard Jadon Guire, center Christopher Ramirez, left guard Tim Braziel and left tackle Ryan Knutson that paved the way for Garcia’s 420-yard, seven-touchdown performance – the 10th-best single-game rushing effort in section history, according to Barnett – during Strathmore’s 62-22 victory over Horizon Christian Academy-San Diego last Saturday in the CIF SoCal Regionals.
“You know if (Garza) would have never started that program, we wouldn’t have been used to the system,” Salas said. “We wouldn’t be as good as we are now because this would have been my third year of football. And now I’ve been playing football for about eight years. It’s good to have experience.”
Blackwell – a former fullback at neighboring Lindsay, College of the Sequoias and Fresno State who has won 107 games and two section titles since taking over for Dave McDaniel as Strathmore coach in 2001 – said the youth program has provided much more than experience running the Spartans’ system.
It has created a brotherhood.
“The awesome thing is they know our offense and they know our defense. But also, they’ve been together so much that they understand each other really well,” Blackwell said. “They play for each other. They like each other. This particular group, they have really bonded like no other team at Strathmore, at least not since I've been here.”
We came out, and we worked our butts off and got a Valley championship. (But) we didn’t think about coming to state. We didn’t know we were going to get this far.
Strathmore junior running back Joseph Garcia, who helped the Spartans win a Central Section Division VI title and the Southern California Regional championship and earn a spot in Saturday’s CIF State Division 6-A final
Strathmore has had two previous unbeaten seasons, going 3-0 when the program launched in 1919 and 9-0-1 in 1960, according to Barnett.
The Spartans can become the section’s first 15-0 team with a win against St. Patrick/St. Vincent on Saturday night. Washington went 14-0 and won the D-III crown in 2011 when it became the first of three section schools – Bakersfield (D-I in 2013) and Hanford (D-IV AA in 2015) the others – to capture a state title.
“We’re making history, and I’m loving it,” said Lara, who had five tackles, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble against Horizon Christian. “I’m hoping it will get better every year and it will continue on from generation to generation.”
CIF State Football Championships
The matchup: St. Patrick/St. Vincent-Vallejo (12-3) at Strathmore (14-0)
Kickoff: 6 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Tickets are $12 for general admission; $8 for children, students with ASB cards and seniors.
How they got here: Bruins tied for third in the Tri-County/Rock League at 2-3, upset the Nos. 4 and 1 seeds before beating No. 2 Fort Bragg 49-35 for the North Coast Section Division V title as a No. 5 seed, beat Brookside Christian-Stockton 47-18 in the CIF Northern California Regional. Spartans won the East Sequoia League at 5-0, beat No. 2 Sierra Pacific 46-20 as the top seed in the Central Section D-VI final, then downed Horizon Christian Academy-San Diego 66-22 in the South regional.
Scouting St. Patrick/St. Vincent: Bruins have won six straight, by an average margin of 23.5 points, operating a spread offense led by sophomore quarterback Akil Edwards, running back Marshel Martin and wide receiver Marquel Johnson. Linebackers Tyler Chesney and Noah Maher headline the defense.
Scouting Strathmore: Spartans’ offense centers around running back Joseph Garcia, who has rushed for 2,195 yards and scored a combined 44 rushing/receiving/kick-return touchdowns. Defensively, Strathmore has counted on the pressure of end Andres Lara (13 sacks) and the thievery of Gilbert Acevedo (six interceptions).
History lesson: Only three Central Section teams have won CIF State football titles since the bowl system was launched with three divisions in 2006 and expanded to five in 2008 and the current 13-division format in 2015 – Washington (D-III) in 2011, Bakersfield (D-I) in 2013 and Hanford (D-IV AA) in 2015.