SACRAMENTO — A little more than three months ago, Hughson High football coach Shaun King threw his 2022 championship ball cap into a roaring bonfire to impress upon his team that a new season calls for new accomplishments.
“I loved that hat,” King said of the memento from his first Sac-Joaquin Section championship as a head coach.
On Saturday, just after the sun had dipped behind Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium, King and his Huskies earned a championship hat for the second consecutive season with a 40-39 come-from-behind victory over Bradshaw Christian.
It was also the second straight year that the “Heart Attack Huskies” were forced to overcome an 18-point second-half deficit in the title game.
“It felt normal almost, which is not a good thing to say,” said receiver/safety David Delgado, who delivered several big plays on both sides of the ball.
While it may have felt normal, it’s a feeling Hughson will need to avoid at all costs this Saturday when it takes on Palma (Salinas) in the Northern California Division 4-A bowl game.
Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. at Husky Memorial Stadium.
The Chieftains (9-4) feature one of California’s top players in Notre Dame-bound receiver Logan Saldate, rated the 36th best senior in the state according to Cal-Hi Sports.
But on Saturday, none of that yet mattered. King momentarily stepped away from a celebratory scrum near the south end zone to try on his new hat.
“It feel’s wonderful,” King said, who led Hughson to section, NorCal and state titles a year ago.
To earn the right to repeat as NorCal and state champs, Hughson first had to repeat as section kings.
That appeared doubtful well into Saturday’s third quarter.
After bolting to a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening possession, the third-seeded Pride (10-3) reeled off 23 unanswered points before Larkin Meyer hauled in a 16-yard TD pass from Robert McDaniel to narrow the gap to 23-13.
However, BC got the ball to start the second half and promptly embarked on an eight-play, 59-yard drive that resulted in a 5-yard TD blast by Brandon Burden — plus a two-point conversion — that made it 31-13 with 8:02 left in the third quarter.
Though the Pride’s three-headed rushing attack of Burden, Nathan Zeppieri, and Mateo Mojica became a two-pronged attack after Zeppieri left the game with a shoulder injury in the first quarter, Hughson remained stymied by BC’s deceptive CoxBox offense, which gained 187 yards on the ground up to that point in the contest.
“We knew that we were stopping them at the point of attack, but the cutbacks were getting to us," said Hughson defensive coordinator D.J. Sexton. “I didn’t want to panic, I didn’t want to drastically change anything.”
The one thing that did change was that the Pride began to tire.
The Huskies’ size and superior numbers — Hughson’s roster is more than double the size of BC’s — began to pay dividends.
“They dress out 73 players and we dress out … a little less,” said BC coach Drew Rickert, who has a roster of 34. “We got tired. Dealing with their size got to us a little bit.”
After taking their largest lead, the Pride gained just 14 more rushing yards, on seven carries, the rest of the game.
“At the start of the fourth quarter they had their hands on their hips and they taking deep breaths,” said middle linebacker David Burns. “We knew at that point we were in better physical condition than they were, and we were going to just tough this game out.”
Conversely, Hughson’s running attack gained momentum as the game wore on.
After being held to 25 yards on nine first-half carries, halfback Alex Villarreal carried 13 times for an additional 87 yards in the second half. His second TD of the game with 5:55 to play in the third made it 31-19.
“We just came with the mentality that we’re a better second-half team,” said Villarreal.
On its next possession, BC turned the ball over on downs after the Huskies sacked Rickert for a 21-yard loss on fourth-and-3. Hughson took over on the Pride’s 36 and cashed in seven plays later on Delgado’s 7-yard TD reception from McDaniel to make it 31-26.
On the ensuing kickoff, kicker Ernie Mendoza’s dribbler up the middle was mishandled and Sebastian Ocegueda pounced on it.
“I saw Ben Lighthall grab it and I laid on top of him so nobody else could hit him,” said Ocegueda. “But it turns out somebody kicked the ball out and then I landed on the free ball. After that, I just did my ball wrestling drills.”
Hughson set up at the BC 36 and on the first play of the drive — the last of the third quarter — Villarreal gained 15 to the 21. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Villarreal broke loose and scored. Mendoza’s PAT was blocked, but the Huskies led 32-31, their first lead in 31:16.
The Pride were marching on their next possession, reaching Hughson’s 43 when Delgado picked off Rickert and raced 40 yards to BC’s 24.
“We knew we just needed one turnover,” said Delgado. “We just don’t give up. This team never gives up.”
Four plays later, McDaniel scored from the 8 on a keeper and King made the unorthodox call of going for two instead of kicking to go up by eight.
“We just had an extra point get blocked,” said King. “And we knew they were worn down. … I had confidence in my guys.”
McDaniel then hit junior tight end Max Mankins for two, giving the Huskies a two-possession lead at 40-31.
Bradshaw Christian took over with 6:47 remaining and eventually scored, adding a two-point conversion for the final margin. But a sack by Ryan Borrelli resulted in precious seconds ticking off the clock.
“Our offense was doing whatever it wanted to do,” said Borrelli. “That helped so much. We had enough time to figure out what we needed to do on defense. And our offense was there to have our back, and we finally pulled through for them.”
The Pride’s onside kick was recovered by Jesus Artea, and the Huskies were able to run out the do not final 2:27.
After the Huskies returned to their locker room, the celebration continued as King stood alone in the hallway. His father passed away earlier in the week and football had been a welcomed distraction.
“Before the game I looked up in the stands and saw my mom there,” said King, fighting back tears. “I knew it was going to be tough for her. This is the first game she’s come to without my dad. And this is the way he witnessed us win all those games last year. He’s the one who gave us the name ‘Heart Attack Huskies.’”