Even though it wasn't set in stone that Helix of La Mesa would represent Southern California in the CIF Division II State Championship Bowl Game if the Highlanders won a section title, Del Oro of Loomis coach Casey Taylor made the trek from Placer County down to Qualcomm Stadium on a Monday after the Golden Eagles had won the Sac Joaquin Section Division III title three nights earlier to scope out the potential opponent.
Helix dominated seven-time defending champ Oceanside 44-6 in the San Diego Section Division II title game and Taylor obviously came away impressed. When Helix was selected for the bowl game, there were no surprises to Taylor what his team needed to do to win the game -- contain the big-play ability of quarterback Brandon Lewis and his offense.
Northern California representative Del Oro was successful for one quarter and took a 10-7 lead, but Helix responded with three second-quarter touchdowns to spark its 35-24 victory.
The victory was the third for the San Diego Section in Division II, following Cathedral Catholic in 2008 and Oceanside a year earlier. It also upped the section's all-time record in bowl games to 5-2. For Helix, the game was a culmination of its series of dominant performances following a 21-14 loss to Eastlake of Chula Vista to open the season.
"They're a good football team...as good as any we've seen all year," Taylor said. "I thought they dominated across the line. We wanted to eliminate big plays, but in the second quarter they had three of them."
For Helix coach Troy Starr, it completed a journey that began when he ventured from his native Ohio to Carson of the L.A. City Section as an unpaid linebackers coach in 1987. That season, Carson was upset in its section title game while gunning for the mythical national title. Starr was also on the losing end of a few more title game stunners when he took over the program at Taft of Woodland Hills.
Helix players celebrate team's CIF Div. II bowl game victory over Del Oro.
His one year on Urban Meyer's staff at the University of Florida in 2007 put his coaching career into perspective and after experiencing another championship heartbreak with the Highlanders in 2008, he finally had a team that put it all together in back-to-back performances to bring home the state title.
"When I went to Florida, I definitely got smarter being around Urban [Meyer] and all those great coaches," Starr said. "But we [Helix] have great players, totally invested players, a true team."
Helix out gained Del Oro in total yardage 384-272 as game MVP Lewis completed 11 of 16 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns.
Helix Breaks It Open Before Halftime
With Del Oro leading 10-7 early in the second quarter, Helix broke open the game with three unanswered touchdowns to take a 28-10 halftime lead.
Helix had a 55-yard touchdown reception wiped out on a penalty, but on the next play facing a first and 28, Lewis hit all-purpose back Gary Thompson on a 73-yard touchdown pass where he broke through the middle of the defense to give Helix a 14-10 lead.
The Highlanders never trailed again.
With 2:54 remaining in the first half, fullback Michael Adkins scored on a 3-yard run that was set up by a 28-yard reception by Thompson. One minute and 43 seconds later with the Del Oro defense on skates, Lewis hit wide receiver Kendal Keys on a reverse screen pass and he did the rest, outracing the defense for a 32-yard touchdown.
"We've been behind before...we knew what we had to do," Lewis said. "There was a lot of game left, even at halftime when we had a pretty good lead, I told the guys to think of it as 0-0 because there's a lot of game left."
Thompson finished with three receptions for a game-high 117 yards and the one score. He also disrupted Del Oro's passing attack and was credited with a tackle for loss and plenty of hurries.
"We knew the way they played and with their coverage we'd have to do things differently and use some different pass patterns," Starr said. "But the real difference was our speed and our defense."
Key Penalty Costs Del Oro
Coming into the contest, Del Oro was the more battle-tested team and rallied on the first drive of the second half to try and get back in the game. On a third and seven from the Helix 39-yard line, quarterback Bobby Heatherington found Alex Bertrando for a 10-yard gain and moments later, wide receiver Russell Smith took an end around six yards in for a score to cut the Golden Eagles' deficit to 11 points (28-17).
With the Del Oro crowd rocking and with momentum seemingly going its way, it looked like the game was going to be a dogfight when Brandon Monroe came up with an interception at the Golden Eagles' 35-yard line. In the midst of the eruption, a late flag had been tossed and after a brief discussion, Helix retained possession on a holding penalty. Instead of Del Oro retaining possession at its own 38-yard line, the Highlanders had the ball at Del Oro's 46-yard line.
Starr's club cashed in on the last play of the third quarter, as Keys caught a three-yard reception just out of the reach of the out stretched arms of Smith as Helix took a 35-17 lead.
Del Oro battled until the end, and even blocked a punt that Bertrando scooped up and took in to the end zone from six yards to account for the final score.
Heatherington finished with 179 yards passing on 19-of-30 completions with one touchdown, but Del Oro's running game was unable to break off big chunks of yardage to keep Helix's defense honest against the pass. The Golden Eagles finished with 93 net rushing yards on 28 attempts.
Evenly Matched First Quarter
Unlike the CIF Division III game where both teams did not play to their potential and at times looked as if they were giving the game away, the Division II game matched two talented teams that played sound football.
There was sharp play-calling and crisp tackling, but a couple of mistakes set up scores for both teams in the first half. For Starr, his stomach turned when Del Oro pooched a kick on the opening play and recovered at the Helix 36-yard line. Del Oro, which came in ranked No. 6 in the state, made its first mistake when Blake Covey dropped a pass on third and seven. Del Oro (13-2) was still able to get on the board with a 36-yard field goal by Skyler Rand.
Helix (13-1) then got the big break it needed when Anthony Spence jumped a pass by Heatherington intended for Johnathan Tuttle at the Golden Eagles' 29-yard line. The Highlanders, ranked No. 9 but sure to move up in next week's final state ratings, cashed in on the mistake when running back Darrion Hancock bulldozed behind his line for a 7-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead with 4:24 remaining in the first half. The play was set up by a big 16-yard reception on third down by Thompson.
Hancock finished with 108 yards rushing and one touchdown on 26 carries.
Thompson and Arthur Shepard are bookends on defense and they were breaking through the lines early, but Heatherington was successfully rolling away from pressure. With 10:11 remaining in the first half, Heatherington rolled right and found Tanner Huber open against a linebacker for a 3-yard score. That gave the Sac Joaquin Section Division III champions a 10-7 lead, but that's when Helix made its adjustments and took over the game.