Story of the Year: Spartans redeem themselves on gridiron, perfect 16-0
By Patrick Dillon
Strathmore returns to state one year after heart break to bring home the first state football title in school and county history
STRATHMORE – When Jeromy Blackwell came in as head football coach of the Strathmore Spartans, he believed one day he would be coaching a team capable of playing for a state championship. Of course, Blackwell had to reconcile with the fact that Starthmore, Calif. was not synonymous with football glory; which is why his belief was met with some resistance. Strathmore’s offensive coordinator Chris Silveira had his doubts and made no buts about sharing them.
As Blackwell tells it Silveira said, “This is not the program that wins a state championship.”
And Silveira was right, but it developed into one by 2017, and they were competing for a state title at the end of 2016.
Two years ago Balckwell and his mighty Spartans were undefeated, CIF division six valley champions, and hosting Tulare County’s first ever state championship game in football against the St. Patrick-St. Vincent Bruins. Unfortunately by the time the clock read all zeros the Spartans saw themselves down 29-28 after a game winning field goal threw Strathmore’s perfect season to the wind. But like all great sports stories teams have to be down to make a comeback worth telling.
In 2017 Strathmore was determined to not let history repeat itself. They kicked down every door on their to the D-6AA state
Running back Joseph Garcia splits two Panther defenders on one of his 40 carries churning out 223 yards and four touchdowns. Photo by Patrick Dillon.
championship. Once there they capped off the perfect 16-0 season defeating the Orange Panthers 31-29.
“They all seized the moment and played every ounce of football that they could,” head coach Jeromy Blackwell said. “These kids did everything that we asked them to do.”
Less than 24 hours after the Spartans lost to St. Patrick-St. Vincent coaches and players alike woke up wanting one last play. Blackwell wondered what they could have done differently.
Fast-forward to August 2017 and the Spartans hit the field ready to finish what they had started the year before.
Strathmore saw little competition in both their non-league and East Sequoia League games. In non-league competition they outscored their opponents 256-69. Running back Joseph Garcia only had 57 carries, but rushed for 859 yards and 15 touchdowns. With almost no competition leading up to their opener against the Woodlake Tigers on Oct. 6 some were concerned they wouldn’t be ready. The Spartans put those concerns to rest when they defeated the Tigers 63-14. That win was the first of another undefeated league title. Strathmore won all five ESL games by a combined score of 243-37.
The first two rounds of the CIF Division VI Valley Playoffs proved to be difficult when they had to beat Orange Cove and then Orosi, two teams they had defeated earlier in the season. And as most coaches can attest, it is always harder to beat the same team the second time around. And while it wasn’t easy the Spartans prevailed 24-6 and then 28-20 respectively.
In the Valley championship finals came a new team: the Rosamond Roadrunners. Two firsts happened in that game: the first ever meeting between the two schools, and the first time Strathmore trailed at the end of a quarter all year. Rosamond led 16-15 at the end of the first quarter. Yet, still Strathmore won 42-32 and took home their second straight valley title.
With one more team than slots in the D-6AA bracket they were forced to compete in a play-in game. To make things even more difficult they had to travel three hours north to play the Hilmar Yellowjackets. Blackwell brought the old saying of his college coach Pat Hill to light to give his players confidence.
“We will play anyone, anywhere, anytime,” Blackwell said.
Mariano Bedoya lifts his hands up in celebration as the Spartans kneel down to run out the clock on their, and Tulare County’s, first ever football state championship. Photo by Patrick Dillon.
The Spartans state title hopes could have been dashed before they even began against the Yellowjackets. For the first time in 2017 the Spartans couldn’t put their opponent away in regulations. Instead they headed to overtime, and then a second overtime to swat away the Yellowjackets 53-52.
The game could have been all for not had it not been for quarterback Nick Salas’s 10 yard scramble toward teh far pylon and a full stretch of his 6-foot-6 frame, followed by a Garcia two-point conversion.
Advancing to the regional championships Strathmore had to face the same team who had shattered their dreams one year earlier, and on the same field of Spartan Stadium. This time the matchup was a back and forth battle instead of Strathmore jumping out to a large lead. The result came down to a turnover by the Bruins in the fourth quarter. Three plays later Strathmore cashed in. Salas scrambled to his right and found Andres Lara in the end zone for the score. Strathmore went on to win the rematch 49-35.
Within reach of the D-6AA Northern California Regional Championship the Strathmore Spartans headed down south to face the Orange Panthers in the state championship. Right from the beginning Strathmore was made aware of how hostile that game was going to be. Even during warm ups some Panther players tried to come over to the Spartan side of the field. However, the Spartans did their talking on the scoreboard, and brought home the title.
When Coach Blackwell was asked about this season’s success he says, “It is all about going 1-0.” Over the past two seasons the Spartans have gone 30-1 and have laid claim to the longest winning streak in school history.
Blackwell believes in repetition as well calling it the “mother of all skills.” For the 2017 Spartans they had been doing the same plays for the past ten years.
Under Robert Garza at the Pop Warner levels they began to sharpen their football skills. The first play they ever learned was Grey 26 Power. Ironically it was the last official play they ever ran. On a fourth and four late in the game against Orange Garcia changed coach Blackwell’s mind on which play to run. Wanting to run left Garcia protested to run to the right, and in fact got the necessary yardage which sealed the game for Strathmore. As Garza saw the team develop he began to think that team was bound for greatness. Multiple times he told them to stick together and they would win. The magnitude of the title not even Garza could have predicted.
“We had kids who were willing to work hard,” said Garza. “To be honest with you I never even thought about state.”