With his team clinging to a six-point lead with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Grace Brethren football coach Josh Henderson could have played it safe by kicking a field goal on fourth and five inside the Loomis Del Oro 20-yard line. Instead, he gambled on a trick play and the player he knows best of all made him look like a genius.
Josh Henderson, the coach’s son, took a pitch on a fake field goal and calmly lobbed a pass to Justin Skidmore, who was brought down at the five-yard line, but not before picking up the crucial first down. Bruising running back Lontrelle Diggs scored his third touchdown on the next play and the Lancers held on to capture their first state championship with a gritty 21-14 triumph in the CIF Division 2-AA bowl game Friday at Cerritos College.
“Josh has made big-time plays for us all year, just like all of the kids have,” coach Henderson said. “I saw it the play before, the way they lined up and said, ‘Let’s take a shot. If we lose let’s lose playing to win.’ It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done.”
Quarterback Mikey Zele added the two-point conversion on a keeper to increase the margin to 21-7 with 2:03 left, but the Golden Eagles didn’t go down without a fight, creeping to within one score on a 17-yard pass from Carson Jarratt to Joshua Moore one minute later.
It wasn’t until the ensuing onside kick rolled out of bounds and Zele took three snaps in victory formation that the Southern Section Division 4 champions could finally start celebrating.
“We’ve been working on that play in practice for a long time for a situation just like this,” Josh Henderson said after making seven tackles, tied with Skidmore for the most by the Lancers, who held the Sac-Joaquin Division II winners to 50 yards rushing. “I got the ball, saw a guy in front of me and just threw it. I was falling back but when I saw Justin catch it, I was so happy.”
It was redemption for the Lancers (14-2), who reached the Division 2-A state bowl game one year ago only to lose 22-13 to Mountain View St. Francis in Sacramento. A tiny school in Simi Valley with an enrollment of 305, Grace Brethren began as an eight-man football program in 1991.
Grace Brethren used a relentless rushing attack to control the ball and the clock in a 28-14 victory over San Diego St. Augustine in the 2-AA regional game two weeks earlier and reverted to that strategy in the clinching drive against Del Oro, pounding it between the tackles to eat up time and keep the chains moving.
Diggs rushed for 188 yards in 27 carries and scored on runs of nine, seven and five yards — upping his season totals to 2,514 yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground.
“There was a lot of motivation for us after what happened last year, especially seeing all of the alumni who came out to support us,” said Diggs, who ran only 17 times against St. Augustine. “The extra week off really helped. I’ve had great people behind me, getting me treatment and making sure I was ready to go today.”
Linebacker Kai Tinker intercepted a pass by Jarratt at the 49-yard line to end Del Oro’s initial possession and the Lancers converted the turnover on Diggs’ off-tackle run to take a 7-0 lead with 5:54 left in the opening quarter.
A defensive struggle ensued until the Lancers marched inside the Del Oro 35, but cornerback Matt Smart intercepted an underthrown ball by Zele at the Golden Eagles’ one-yard line with 37 seconds left in the first half.
After forcing a punt to begin the second half, Del Oro (13-2) scored on a 46-yard strike from Jarratt to Dawson Hurst to knot the score 7-7.
Grace Brethren responded with an impressive drive of its own, moving 80 yards in 11 plays — capped by Diggs’ second touchdown run — but the extra-point attempt was blocked.
“Credit to Del Oro — they gave us everything we could handle,” coach Henderson said. “It was a war and it was a warrior’s night. We’ve played 32 games the last two seasons and everyone is banged up. We struggled most of the game on offense, but our defense rose up.”