“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
While the above line may be an overused cliche, it has certainly never been more fitting than for the 2018 CIF Division 3-A State Champion Wilcox Chargers.
Saturday night the Chargers captured their first CIF State Championship in school history, knocking off the visiting Kaiser Cats, 41-27.
While Wilcox held legitimately high expectations before the season started, the school has not won a CCS title since 1997. They previously had reached the final in back-to-back years in 2008 and 2009 under longtime Head Coach Woody Freitas, but lost both years.
In 2018, the Chargers were entering just their fourth season under Head Coach Paul Rosa. Last season, with a lot of the same key players, the Chargers lost big in the first round of CCS to the St. Francis Lancers, 52-27. The 2017 Chargers also lost to another West Catholic Athletic League opponent, the Valley Christian Warriors, by a final of 48-7.
Thus, despite the high expectations, hardly anyone in Santa Clara envisioned such an incredible season. Asked after Saturday’s big win if he could have envisioned his team winning the State Championship back in August, coach Rosa replied:
“No, not at all. I mean we definitely thought this was a year where we could make a move, but you never imagine that it is going to be 14-1 and a State Champion move.”
Such a move may not have been forecast before the season began, but the belief that this team could do something special grew right away. The biggest win of the regular season for the Chargers came in Week 1 when Wilcox upset those same Valley Christian Warriors. Wilcox avenged their blowout loss a year prior with a stupendous defensive performance, winning the opener by a 10-6 final.
That win set them on the path to eventually becoming State Champions. Their only blemish on their (14-1) record was a 33-28 loss in the CCS Division I Final against Menlo-Atherton. Wilcox led that game 21-0 and beat themselves with turnovers. One could argue that no team this season proved they could beat the Chargers with Wilcox at their best.
When prompted if it would be nice to get to move on and play one of the other 13 State Champions, Wilcox quarterback Alex Adame didn’t hesitate.
“We’ve been going for awhile, for several weeks now, so it’s nice to end on this note,” responded the senior QB. “We finally get a well-deserved break now.”
Even though 13 other schools also get to call themselves CIF State Champions, the way Wilcox ended their season might make them the most impressive champion in California.
The Chargers kept arguably the state’s best running back, Kaiser’s Christian Hunter mostly bottled up in the backfield.
So how did the Chargers stop Hunter?
“Coming into this week we knew they were strong on the ground game, so at practice we just prepped all week for the ground game,” said Chargers’ safety Nick Malvini who sealed the game with an interception in the endzone with under two minutes remaining. “We knew this guy was good, so we just had to focus on being faster than their linemen. Their linemen are fast off the ball, so we just had to beat them to the spot and we did that tonight.”
“Our run defense has been really good all year long,” said coach Rosa. “I knew that [Hunter] was going to get his yards, he is a man, he’s good. I thought it would be a back-and-forth game with him breaking a few here or there, but he didn’t really do that. Our defense did a great job again.”
Credit goes to all 11 starters on the Chargers’ defense. Interior linemen Samuela Lolo and Issac Passett helped eat up blocks allowing both defensive ends Alejandro Brizuela and Isaiah Flores, and the linebackers Roan Poulivaati, Robert Padilla and Ray Orozco to fly to the ball. Furthermore, the secondary stepped up big when the Cats figured out they needed to mix in the pass. Along with Malvini’s late interception, corner Ryan Cooper Jr. didn’t have a single ball thrown his way, some Richard Sherman-level respect. Meanwhile, Paul M. Rosa, Aaron Ah Sing and Jacob Dominguez each made some big hits to break up passes or deny extra yards.
On the other side of the ball, the Chargers offense flourished even without throwing a single pass. They were never forced to punt either. Wilcox did turn the ball over on a fumble late in the second half, but it was the only time the Chargers’ offense would fail to find the endzone.
Talking about the size of the fight in the dogs, tailbacks Rosa (5’6”, 165) and Gabe Herrera (5’7”, 175) played much bigger than their dimensions. Rosa had a nice day, 117 yards on 24 carries for a 4.9 yards-per-carry average, but it was Herrera who went off behind the right side of the Chargers offensive line. The senior tailback rushed for a career-high 246 yards on 24 carries, (a 10.3 average) and four touchdowns.
“The right side of our line was awesome, we found something there with the right side and when we find something we just ride it until they stop it,” said coach Rosa on Herrera’s big day. (Herrera typically lines up behind the right side of the Chargers’ offensive line). “And they never really managed to stop it. Our backs run hard. They aren’t the biggest guys, and our line doesn’t have the biggest guys either, but those guys work together to get it done.”
The Chargers’ starting offensive line featuring tackles Osiris Niko and Scott Smith, guards Ronnie Rodriguez and Arron Abinsay, and center Hunter Bright paved the way all season for the Chargers’ impressive rushing attack.
“We don’t have the biggest line, but they have the biggest hearts,” said the younger Rosa. “We win because of those grind out yards where the linemen push us to go the extra three yards.”
When asked for his immediate thoughts as the clock ticked down to zero and the celebration began, the younger Rosa put it best.
“It didn’t hit me until later. To be honest with you, I was still on the field and was like, ‘man, this can’t be real right now.’ But I was really happy, emotions through the roof. This is what we worked for all year.”