Del Norte Warriors

It came down to one play.

Forty-seven minutes and 40 seconds of hard-fought football between No. 2-seeded Del Norte High and the top-seeded Encinal Jets Saturday night had led to this moment.

At stake: the North Coast Section Division 5 title, something no Warrior team had ever achieved.

Del Norte led by one, 14-13. Encinal had the ball deep in Warrior territory, its kicker on the field, ready to knock through a game-winning field goal from 25 yards out. About 20 seconds remained.

Fans on both sides of the Heyward High stadium were standing, cheering, screaming, hoping ... praying.

And for Del Norte, those prayers were answered.

The Warriors' Chase Blackburn lined up and at the snap came hard off the edge. At the critical moment, he left his feet, his arms outstretched, fully extending his body, flying for those brief moments.

The ball left the right foot of Encinal's Kevin Lee, moving toward the goal post, gaining height and momentum.

Then came the moment when Blackburn and ball met. The ball bounded away in the opposite direction, recovered by the Warriors.

The whole scene only took two or three seconds ... but they will live in the hearts of Del Norte High players, coaches and fans forever.

The Warriors were the 2019 NCS Division 5 champions.

The team that carried less than two dozen players on their roster ... the team that was plagued by injuries to its offensive line ... the team that some said was too one-dimensional ... the team that had never won an N-C-S crown ... were given the banner and the trophy at midfield shortly after the game ended.

"I couldn't be any happier," said Nick White, the first-year Warrior head coach, who won a Section title as a player at Fort Bragg High. "It's a lot of fun as a player, but as an adult, there is an appreciation for everything that goes on to achieve this sort of goal. It takes a complete effort for this to happen."

The game played out pretty much as expected. Both squads relied all season on great defense, and that was the case again in the title battle. Del Norte held Encinal to 17 points under its scoring average this season. The Jets limited the Warriors to 238 total yards of offense, 144 yards under their season average.

Encinal got on the scoreboard first, on the first play of the second quarter, when Teddy Oliver made a spectacular one-handed catch for a score.

Del Norte responded on its next drive, with Blackburn cashing in from 15 yards out. Five minutes later, Levi Cox-Cooley's 34-yard off-tackle run set up O.J. Calleja's one-yard T.D. plunge. The Warriors led 14-7 at halftime.

Neither team could move the ball in the third quarter, but midway through the final stanza, Encinal running back Isiah Smith broke free down the sideline for a 67-yard scoring run. An extra point was all that was needed to tie the score.

But Smith was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty long after the score, possibly for excessive celebration. That moved the PAT back 15 yards. A procedure penalty against the Jets moved it back five more. Suddenly, Lee faced a 40-yard extra point. Even with the wind to his back he missed, slightly wide left.

Like all its second-half drives, Del Norte's offense was stymied and was forced to punt, giving the team from Alameda a chance.

The Jets took advantage. They moved the ball down the field, using short passes and the occasional run to break into Del Norte territory. On a critical play inside a minute to play, quarterback David Romero-Reinholz avoided the rush, took off running down the right sideline, and got the ball inside the Del Norte 15-yard line. A penalty against the Warriors moved the ball half the distance to the goal.

Encinal rushed the line and spiked the ball. The Jets wasted no time. It sent in its kicker.

Lee nailed 85 percent of his PATs during the regular season. A week earlier, in the Jets' semifinal game against De Anza, the junior made a 25-yard field goal as time expired to left the Jets into the championship game, 24-21. He would have his chance to win another one.

Blackburn had blocked two kicks earlier this year, and had actually come close on the Encinal's first extra point of the game.

The Warriors overloaded one side, hoping to spring somebody loose, and save Del Norte's dream season. It was Blackburn, although Coach White said it was more than just the senior at that moment.

"Every kid played a role in that," White said.

Del Norte's fans -- who made the seven-hour trip through wind and rain for the game and outnumbered the Encinal -- hugged their neighbors, and then after the awards ceremony, hugged their heroes on the field.

"Our community support has been top notch," he said. "Our crowd was so loud. It was cool."

And while winning the Section title is always Goal No. 1, a new challenge awaits. Del Norte will find out Sunday who it was play in the Nor-Cal Championship game next weekend. The Warriors have requested it host the game. The announcement will be made on the C-I-F website.

An exhausted White said he doesn't care who his Warriors play. All he knows is that his team, and the players, are champions.

"You have to prove it," White said. "You have to put in the hard work, you have to make it happen.

"You take each goal as it comes. That's how you build a championship team."

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