By Bill Paterson
Sacramento High School made its first appearance in a Sac-Joaquin Section football championship game Friday night in Stockton, capping a memorable breakthrough season for the Oak Park charter school.
But even though the fifth-seeded Dragons fell 49-6 to bigger, stronger and better Manteca (13-1) in the Division III final at Lincoln High School, snapping the Dragons' eight-game winning streak, their despair at playing so poorly in a steady downpour won't last for long.
Against one of the section's traditional powers, the Dragons (11-3) couldn't overcome four turnovers, five sacks, 10 penalties for 77 yards or the hard running of Alex Laurel (154 yards, two touchdowns, 22 carries) behind a Buffaloes' offensive line that averages 285 pounds.
With a team that will return two-thirds of its roster and many of its key players, the Dragons are already vowing to make a return appearance and to do better next season.
And why not.
The building project that former coach Doug Cosbie and current coach Paul Doherty started eight years ago continues in the right direction.
Sacramento has established itself as a formidable football program at a school renowned for its basketball.
The Dragons (11-3) have made five consecutive playoff appearances and this year won their first football playoff game in school history, beating Benicia 42-35. They followed up with wins over defending D-III section champion Oakdale, then topped Oak Park rival Christian Brothers, another up-and-coming program.
"We're definitely a little better than in the past," Doherty said before Friday's game. "I wouldn't say it's been a dramatic change. We're in year eight, but I saw this as a 10-year project when I first came here because things were so bad."
Cosbie, the former NFL all-pro tight end, implemented a spread offense, ran it for four years and made two playoffs, then left the program in the hands of Doherty, his able assistant and former player at Menlo College.
"Coach Cosbie brought a lot of experience and got it on the right track," Doherty said. "He put the right system into place and pointed me in the right direction. It was just a matter of plugging along."
Doherty has done more than just grind away, according to Sac High athletic director Justin Gatling.
"Doug created the foundation, but it's been Paul's energy, excitement and belief in the kids that has taken us to the next level," Gatling said.
The Dragons are a combined 32-15 in Doherty's four seasons.
Among Doherty's accomplishments:
Produced a national-caliber weight-training program that paid off in a big way this season with muscular line play from an offensive line led by senior captains Kalen McDonald (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), Tyler Hickerson (5-9, 290) and Terrell Craig (6-2, 185).
By picking the brain of Folsom coaches and good friends Kris Richardson and Troy Taylor, he's honed a sophisticated spread offense that's a perfect fit for a large contingent of speedy athletes, such as wide receiver Damen Wheeler, who finished a remarkable senior season with 1,896 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns, including a 13-yarder for the Dragons' only score against Manteca.
He's drawing football-first athletes such as 6-1, 220-pound junior running back-linebacker Lonny Powell, who could be Doherty's first national recruit. Powell was a bright spot against Manteca in rushing for 116 yards on 17 carries.
Brought a youth feeder football program to the campus whose first class of players is represented by seven sophomores on the varsity.
The leader of that group is quarterback Caden Voges, an Elk Grove resident, who came to Sac High because he wanted to play in a spread offense. He's been favorably compared to Folsom junior Jake Browning, the state leader in passing yards and touchdowns.
Though the 6-foot, 165-pound Voges struggled Friday trying to find his grip in the wet conditions (17 for 34 for 203 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown), he finished the year with an impressive 4,342 passing yards and 48 touchdowns.
"Caden saw what Dano Graves, Tanner Trosin and Jake were doing at Folsom and thought he would be able to showcase his skill-set in that type of offense," Doherty said.
Sacramento came out strong against Manteca in its first series.
The Dragons ran 15 plays and moved 53 yards to the Buffaloes 17-yard line before the drive stalled. Sac missed on a 35-yard field goal kick attempt.
But after a 0-0 first quarter, Manteca went to work and scored 28 consecutive points.
Sac High's only touchdown came with 8:26 to play in the third quarter after Powell recovered a fumble - the Buffaloes' only turnover - and ran it back 40 yards to Manteca's 39-yard line.
Sophomore Talik Ellis rushed for two yards, then Voges hit sophomore Iyzick Webber with a 24-yard completion to the Manteca 13. After an incompletion, he found Wheeler for a 13-yard touchdown.
In addition to Laurel, who had touchdown runs of 51 and 9 yards, Michael Gonzalez rushed for touchdowns of 56 and 15 yards and Hector Soto had a 30-yard score.
Wide receiver-defensive back Nick Gatehouse had a strong game for Manteca. He caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Menzel and also had two interceptions.
It was Manteca's fourth section title and makes them eligible for consideration on Sunday for a CIF Northern California Regional bowl berth.