SHS defense comes up with big plays in the fourth quarter

No matter if it’s first-and-10 or fourth-and-long, put the football in Strathmore Spartan running back Joseph Garcia’s hands and you can trust that something remarkable is going to happen or something risky is about to pay off.

From fourth-and-four with less than 2 minutes left in the CIF State Division 6-AA Championship game, Garcia called his own play and picked up the first down that sealed Tulare County’s first-ever football state title with a 31-29 win over Orange (13-3) Saturday evening at Fred Kelly Stadium in Orange. On the night, Garcia rushed for 223 yards and four touchdowns — from 8 , 1 , 2 and 5 yards — on 40 carries. He also had three two-point conversions.

“We put the ball into our clutch player’s hands and we rode Joseph Garcia to a state championship,” Strathmore head coach Jeromy Blackwell said. Garcia finished the season with 2,849 yards and 49 touchdowns on the ground — replacing the 2,345-yard and 40-touchdown records he set for Strathmore last season. He is also the sixth player in CIF Central Section history to score a 100 career touchdowns.

“I love those guys,” Garcia said about his offensive line. “They block for me. They help me not get hit a lot, if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be able to get all these yards.”

Down 16-15 at halftime, Garcia scored the go-ahead touchdown on the Spartans’s first drive of the third quarter from 2-yards out. Then after Orange’s Jason Wilkinson answered with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Schmidt on the next drive, Strathmore’s defense came up huge and stopped the Panthers from converting their two-point play.

In the fourth quarter, the Spartans’ defense forced a four-and-out and drove the Panthers back to their own 5-yard line with tackles for losses from senior linebacker Noah Alcantar and senior defensive end Andres Lara, as well as a broken up pass by sophomore corner Andre Bravo.

Garcia scored his final touchdown of the night on a 5-yard run the next drive after converting on fourth-and-five two plays earlier.

From the beginning of the game, Orange answered every Strathmore touchdown drive with one of their own, but on their final one — a 6-yard run from OHS Joseph Martinez — they settled for their first PAT of the game and their on-side kick attempt was scooped up by SHS junior Amando Rodriguez.

“Like I said we’ve been hungry,” SHS junior left guard Jadon Guire said. “They have a home-run offense, we have an offense that we’re just going to pound it at you and pound it at you the whole game and we’re just going to take your will away and that’s what we did here. We really just showed them what our Valley boys can do.”

Those “Valley boys” embodied the true sense of family on and off the field with four sets of brothers, two sets of cousins, an uncle and nephew, and a father, a son and a stepson all winning together and creating a memory that they will share forever.

As the team went into victory formation after Garcia picked up the necessary first down, SHS offensive line coach Robert Garza and his stepson, senior quarterback Nick Salas, shared an embrace full of emotions and tears.

“It was emotional,” Garza said. “We couldn’t hold any emotions back. It was, to me, one of the most special things I’ve had in my life, that we, him and I have shared together. As you know, he’s my stepson and we have something we shared that nobody else can have. Nobody else can take that away from us. And it’s very special to me that him and I shared the same thing together.”

From the team to the parents, all the way through the small communities of Strathmore and Plainview, the impact of this team’s 16-0 undefeated season carries weight not only through Tulare County but through out the Central Valley and California with congratulations and support pouring in online from Fresno, Bakersfield, Exeter, as well as Long Beach, Huntington Beach and Sacramento.

“That’s an amazing group of kids,” Blackwell said. “And how about this. The better part of that football team comes from Plainview, California — population 940...Thank Strathmore for blessing us with all these kids, letting them play football for us.”

Since 2008, Coach Garza promised a bunch of 7- and 8-year-old kids that if they stuck with him and the Strathmore program they’d win a Valley title. Nearly 10 years later and they’ve won so much more.

Over the past two seasons, Strathmore has won two Valley titles, two league titles and was state runner-up in 2016 while racking up a 30-1 record along the way.

“Being it is the first in Strathmore history, it’s a huge deal for us,” Salas said. “For us to be here twice in a row, but last year come up about six seconds short. It’s very hard to live with that. Just for us to come back and actually finish it off the way we wanted to, it’s a dream come true.”

Salas added, “We’re just extremely grateful to have this great coaching staff. Extremely grateful for coach Robert Garza. He laid the foundation for us whenever we were seven or eight years old. We just couldn’t be thankful enough for all the guys we had.”

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