Hilmar High football coach Frank Marques can remember with great detail all the key plays in last year’s 53-52 double-overtime loss to Strathmore in the NorCal play-in game.
So many things went the Spartan’s way as Hilmar blew a 12-point lead with less than 9 minutes left in the game.
Marques remembers the Yellowjackets’ fumble late in the game that set up Spartans for the game-tying score with a minute left in the fourth quarter.
He remembers vividly the missed field goal at the end of regulation that would have sent Hilmar home a winner. Then there was Strathmore quarterback Nick Salas using all of his 6 feet and 6 inches to stretch the ball over the goal line to tie the game in the second overtime. That set the stage for the Spartans converting a two-point conversion to get the win.
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“Nothing hurt worse than the morning after,” Marques said. “Just sitting there, trying to play it out how we lost that game. I thought we outplayed them. It’s one of the toughest losses of my career, easily in the top three.”
All week, Marques and the Yellowjackets coaching staff have been talking about redemption.
On Saturday they get their chance as Hilmar (12-2) hosts Strathmore (13-1) in the CIF State 6-AA Championship game at McSweeney Field.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
“I think it’s pretty amazing we’re playing them,” said senior Justin Rentfro. “Last year was definitely the toughest loss I ever had. I thought I would never see that team again. Now I get a chance for revenge and to face them in a state championship game is perfect.”
Strathmore coach Jeromy Blackwell knows what to expect in Hilmar.
“I think our football team showed a lot of resiliency last year and we stole one from those poor kids,” Blackwell said. “They’re going to be fired up. Revenge is an awesome motivator.”
After defeating Hilmar last season, Strathmore went on to beat St. Patrick-St. Vincent 49-35 in the NorCal championship and then defeated Orange 31-29 in the state championship.
Nobody tested the Spartans like the Yellowjackets did on their state title run.
“I just remember after the game (against Hilmar), our kids ran into the end zone,” Blackwell said. “I had no juice left. I let them come back to me. I shook (Marques’) hand. I was breathing hard. After we won that game, we were the team of destiny. That was the best team we played last year.
“That’s what is exciting. That should have been the finale for both teams last year.”
Last year’s game was an instant classic. Can the sequel live up to the original?
Both teams have the pedigree for another epic game.
Strathmore is playing in its third consecutive state title game and it trying to win back-to-back state championships. The Spartans are 43-2 in the last three seasons, winning three consecutive Central Section titles.
Blackwell has led Strathmore to six Valley Championship games during his 18 years, winning four section titles. He’s compiled an impressive 136-60 record with the Spartans.
Marques’ resume is also impressive, winning four Sac-Joaquin Section championships and making eight title game appearances during his 16 years as the Yellowjackets coach. Marques’ career record is 145-49.
While Hilmar has reached the state title game this year with the help of 17 returning starters, Strathmore has made the run with a new cast of characters after graduating 17 players from last year’s state championship team, including Salas and star running back Jose Garcia, who had 239 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns against Hilmar last season.
Senior Alonso Acevedo has emerged as the Spartans go-to back, rushing for 1,799 yards and 32 touchdowns this season.
Most of Hilmar’s key players played against Strathmore last year. They have another long season under their belt. They’ve been through the wars of the Trans-Valley League and made another tough run to a section championship.
They’ve also been thinking about this game since they began offseason workouts.
“We knew it was going to be really hard to get to a state game,” Marques said. “But we knew (Strathmore) would be in the South this year and the only way we could face them would be in a state bowl game. We knew it was going to be tough, but we’ve been thinking about this game since January.”
It’s even more special for the Hilmar seniors to have the game moved from Atwater High to their home field.
“I think it’s amazing that I get to play my last high game ever on my home field,” Rentfro said. “If it turns out we win, you couldn’t write a better story to end our senior year.”