STOCKTON, Calif. – Host St. Mary’s took the old expression “the third time is a charm” way beyond its limits, because for the Rams it was more like the eighth time is a charm
Serra may be the top team in Northern California, but it took a field goal as time was running out to beat De La Salle. And Folsom may be the No. 2 team in Northern California, but they beat De La Salle on the last play of the game.
However, after spotting De La Salle an early 14-point lead, the Rams (7-0) dominated the rest of the way for a 45-35 victory Friday night. It was the first time St. Mary’s has beaten De La Salle after losing all seven previous meetings beginning with the 2010-2011 season.
“This win was way bigger than just us” said St. Mary’s junior quarterback Samson Hunkin. “It’s for our school and our community. It builds a legacy for the future.”
The 6-0, 170-pound Hunkin had a huge night and ended up accounting for five Rams touchdowns. He finished 25 of 31 passing for 251 yards and three touchdown. And despite being sacked twice he rushed for 55 yards and two more scores.
Two of the Rams wide receivers did most of the damage, and both were equally shifty at breaking free and avoiding Spartans would be tacklers.
Senior Naseri Danielson never broke the big one, but De La Salle couldn’t handle him. He had four catches of 20 or more yards, including a 20-yard TD, and finished with 13 receptions for 156 yards and the one score.
Senior Brooks Wheatley did break the big one, and it came on a 74-yard swing pass he took down the left sideline, avoided several tacklers, and raced past everyone for a score. That pass came from highly regarded freshman quarterback Devin Rasmussen, whom St. Mary’s head coach Tony Franks used on a couple of series.
Wheatley also caught a 10-yard TD pass from Hunkin and finished with six receptions for 115 yards and the two scores.
“This was a big team win,” Danielson said. “We came together as a brotherhood, took care of business, and got the job done.”
When asked if this was the biggest win in school history, Franks hesitated a moment while pondering the question, and then kind of chuckled in his answer.
“Ah, yeah, probably, yeah. I think it has to be in the discussion, no doubt,” Franks said. “This was a huge win for our team and our program.”
After falling behind by two touchdowns, the Rams never panicked. The game plan the veteran coach designed of short outs in the air mixed in with some power running was something De La Salle just could not stop.
The St. Mary’s running game was led by Asante Carter. By and large De La Salle contained the junior running back. They held him out of the end zone and only allowed him to gain 51 yards on 17 carries, but he did just enough to support a clicking passing game.
Before he would take credit for dialing up a game plan that had the Spartans on their heels, Franks insisted on talking about De La Salle.
“First of all, I have so much respect and admiration for De La Salle, for their coaching staff, their program and their players. Their coaches are my friends,” Franks said. “These are tough games to play and tough games to lose, on either side, but these are great high school football games.”
“Tip of the cap to my coaching staff,” Franks continued. “They dialed up an outstanding game plan on both sides of the ball, but it was a battle, and we knew it was going to be a battle, but we were up for it. We wanted it to be a dog fight.”
St. Mary’s won the coin toss but deferred.
De La Salle took the opening kickoff and started rolling, but a holding penalty helped stall a nine-play drive and they punted.
St. Mary’s also incurred a penalty on its opening drive and that led to a 12-yard punt that went out of bounds at their own 30 yard line.
The Spartans pounced on the short field and scored in five plays on a 1-yard keeper by junior quarterback Carson Su’esu’e.
De La Salle junior defensive lineman Chris Biller came up with a sack on the next St. Mary’s series, and this time the St. Mary’s punt went out of bounds at their own 45. It wasn’t quite as short a field as the first possession but De La Salle got its 14-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter when Su’esu’e scored again on a 6-yard keeper.
It was at this point the worm began to turn and St. Mary’s got going. The Rams went 80 yards in five plays and cut it to 14-7 on the 20-yard TD reception by Danielson.
On the ensuing De La Salle series, senior running back Charles Greer fumbled after a nice gain. It was recovered by Rams senior linebacker Lucas Healy, and St. Mary’s was in business at the Spartan 34. Three plays later, Hunkin found junior wide receiver Cayden Ward on an 8-yard TD pass to tie things at 14-14.
De La Salle came back with its best possession of the day and scored on a 12-play, 80-yard drive when Su’esu’e got his third score on a 16-yard run. At that point it was 21-14 De La Salle with 3:09 left in the half, but from there the Spartans defense and offense began to sputter.
St. Mary’s got the ball on its 20 after a touchback, and Hunkin took over and led the Rams 80 yards in 11 plays for a score. On fourth-and-goal from the one and with time running down in the half, it appeared the De La Salle defense had stopped him short, but they couldn’t wrap him up and Hunkin muscled into the end zone with 16.9 seconds left to knot things at 21-21 after two quarters.
The Rams took the second half kickoff, but after 16 plays, they had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by junior Matthew Cain that gave them their first lead at 24-21.
De La Salle took a final lead at 28-24 on a 70-yard TD pass from Su’esu’e to Notre Dame-committed senior tight end Cooper Flanagan, but it was very short lived.
Franks brought in Rasmussen and in two plays and only 23 seconds after they lost the lead, St. Mary’s got it back for good at 31-28 on the 74-yard TD pass to Wheatley that closed out the third-quarter scoring.
St. Mary’s extended the lead to 38-28 on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Hunkin to Danielson at 11:23 of the fourth quarter.
The next two De La Salle drives ended in fumbles, one by Greer and one by sophomore Dominic Kelly, and Hunkin sealed the win after the Kelly fumble when he scored on a 1-yard plunge to make it 45-28 with 2:56 left.
The Spartans scored late on a 77-yard TD pass from sophomore backup quarterback Toa Faavae to senior Journey McCoy, but the onside kick failed and St. Mary’s ran out the clock as the entire student section stormed the field.
De La Salle (3-3) is off to its worst start since before the days of legendary Coach Bob Ladouceur.
Spartans head coach Justin Alumbaugh pretty much summed it up. “We aren’t good right now and it’s my responsibility to get us better.”
What’s a bit ironic is De La Salle can still win the North Coast Section Open Division title and likely will be playing for a state CIF Northern Regional 1-A Bowl Game championship. Remember, no one has beaten the Spartans in an NCS title game since 1991 when Pittsburg turned the trick.
De La Salle now begins the first of four games against teams from the East Bay Athletic League-Mountain Division next week at California.
On the other hand, St. Mary’s is now in the conversation with Serra as a potential state CIF Open Division participant. First, they will have to win the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title, and that likely will mean a matchup with Folsom.
“It would be nice to get back to a section title game and that’s a long way down the road,” Franks said. “We haven’t been there in a while. We like that environment and that would be fantastic, but its high school football and lot of things can happen between now and then.”
Next up for St. Mary’s is a matchup with 6-1 Tracy in the Tri-City Athletic League. Tracy’s lone loss is to Downey-Modesto.