It took a team effort for the Del Norte football team to pull off a 14-6 upset of defending champion and No. 6 seeded Justin-Siena in the first round of the North Coast Sectional District 4 playoffs in Napa on Saturday.
“It is just a reward for all their hard work,” said head coach Ray Rook. “It is huge because all year long, we have had little things that have set us back — a mistake here, a lost ball there, a call, just something not going right. Nothing ever seemed like it wanted to go our way. Finally, Saturday night in Napa, we had some things go our way. We forced them into some mistakes, and we took advantage of them. It was fun to see us on that side.”
It was the first playoff victory in three tries during Rook’s four years at the helm of the Del Norte football program.
“It means a lot to me,” said senior lineman Eric Turner. “I have played special teams in playoff games before as a sophomore. It is great to go down there and actually win a game. It is good, too, for the community to have something to be proud of again in football.”
The No. 11 Warriors managed the upset by playing sound football and making big plays on offense, defense and special teams.
Rook said if he had a game ball to give away, it would have gone to junior kicker Jonathan Calderon. As a punter, Calderon was able to pin Justin-Siena on its own 5 yard line for the Braves’ first two possessions of the game. He continued to punt the ball well throughout the contest and was a valuable piece of winning the field position battle. Calderon was also 2-for-2 on field goals hitting from 40 and 25 yards out.
Special teams came up big after Justin-Siena scored its touchdown as well, when Matthew Coopman and Napooi Shorty combined to block the extra point attempt.
“Special teams was huge for us,” Rook said. “A couple of us came together last week and we found some places that we were able to expose them.”
Another key component of winning the field position battle was the tough defense played by the Warriors.
“I can’t say enough about the defense,” Rook said. “They played some great ball Saturday night. They tackled well. Justin-Siena had some size that we dealt with pretty well. They had a big back, and we really beat him up.”
Rook was pleased with how the Warriors played on Saturday at all three levels of the defense.
“The defensive line played well and kept them off Matt Coopman and Napooi Shorty, who really played lights out at linebacker,” Rook said. “Then David Sathe and Austin Healy had good coverage when they did try to throw. We got pressure on the quarterback a couple times, Shorty had a huge sack, it was just little integral parts of the game that came up huge.”
Although the offense was only able to score one touchdown and 14 points, they to were a key cog in the Warriors’ victory. Del Norte was able to break a couple long runs throughout the game. Although the Warriors didn’t score a lot of points, they were able to eat up a lot of clock, especially in the second half when they had a lead.
“The big runs really came off of formations,” Rook said. “We were able to get Justin-Siena in some formations and managed to pop some big runs. We were able to pick up first downs each and every drive to work the clock. The offense was huge just for that fact. They were also able to score every time they got it in the red zone, and they were able to run out the clock at the end of the game.”
The game started in a defensive gridlock. Both Del Norte and Justin-Siena played tough defense as neither offense was able to get a first down in the first five possessions of the game.
The Warriors began to heat up in the second quarter. Senior running back Jackson Evans was the workhorse on a 69-yard touchdown drive that Evans capped with a 10-yard touchdown run.
“It was a fake to Dylan and a little pitch out to me,” Evans said. “They all went to Dylan, so I just went right in.”
Austin Healy completed a 2-point conversion to give Del Norte an 8-0 lead.
With 17.5 seconds left in the first half, Justin-Siena fumbled a punt and Napooi Shorty was able to recover on the Justin-Siena 22 yard line.
Jonathan Calderon was able to make the Braves pay, hitting a 40-yard field goal as time expired to give the Warriors an 11-0 lead at halftime.
Justin-Siena got the offense going on the first drive of the second half. The Braves marched 70 yards and managed to punch in a touchdown on fourth and goal from the 2 yard line. Del Norte was able to block the extra point to maintain an 11-6 lead.
The Warriors answered straight back on the next drive. Evans returned the kickoff to the 44 yard line. Then followed that up with a 45 yard run to put Del Norte in field goal range.
“I just bounced to the outside and came right of my blocker, Eric Turner’s shoulder,” Evans said. “I ran towards the sideline and made a couple more cuts. I couldn’t really break the run, but I got close.”
The Del Norte drive stalled after that, but Calderon connected on a 25-yard field goal four plays later to push the Warriors lead back to eight points.
Del Norte stopped Justin-Siena on the next four drives, and the Warriors were able to run out the final 2:30 to secure the upset.
The Warriors will head to Healdsburg next Saturday for the quarterfinal match up. Healdsburg (6-4) enters the tournament as the No. 3 seed and received a first-round bye.