Charles James never could have envisioned a sweeter birthday celebration than the one he experienced on Saturday night.
Nearly 600 miles from home, in a quaint old-western town of about 2,000 people with no stop lights but several saloons, at 2,500 feet in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, with temperatures in the low 40s, James was presented the birthday gift of a lifetime.
His football team, the Cavers of San Diego High, boisterously sang “Happy Birthday” to him moments after beating Colfax, 21-10, in the CIF State Bowl Championship Division 5-A game at Colfax.
“It was a birthday I’ll never forget,” James said. “All the stars were lined up perfectly.”
That the game was even played on his 40th birthday was a fluke, the state championships having been pushed back a week because of wildfires this fall in Northern California.
Consider, too, from 2012-16, San Diego was 7-43, including 1-9 in 2014 under Knengi Martin, the first female head coach in state history.
James, a 1998 Morse graduate who played receiver at UNLV and Idaho State, took over the program in 2015 and went 1-9 and 2-8 in his first two seasons. But there were positive signs of better times.
“With the staff we had and the players coming in, I knew we would be successful,” James said. “But I never imagined a state title. Not this soon.”
The Cavers were 12-0 last year before losing big, 71-48, to Monte Vista in the San Diego Section championship game.
“After last season, we gained a lot of confidence,” senior Raiden Hunter said. “We knew we could do something special.”
San Diego (12-2) won its final 12 games this year, including its first San Diego Section title since 1969.
In the Southern California Regionals, San Diego rallied from 21-0 and 31-21 deficits to beat Linfield Christian, 42-31, with three touchdowns in the final nine minutes.
Against undefeated Colfax, the Cavers fell behind 10-0 before Hunter pulled down a remarkable 23-yard touchdown pass from senior Quinn O’Connor on the final play of the first half. A leaping Hunter had two defenders draped on him and still managed to get a foot in the back of the end zone.
“That was an insane catch,” O’Connor said. “That really shifted the momentum.”
San Diego opened the second half with a 63-yard drive that took 7:05 off the clock and put the Cavers in the lead, 14-10, when sophomore Mo Jackson scored on a 9-yard pass from O’Connor.
With less than four minutes to play, Hunter intercepted a pass and returned it nearly 60 yards to the 20-yard line. Next play, Jackson burst off left tackle for the clinching score.
“That’s when I said, ‘Oh my God! We did it. We’re state champs!’ ” O’Connor said. “I was shell-shocked. It was such an amazing feeling.”
Seniors Jaliel Jackson and Joshua Wheeler and sophomore Ruben Villa each posted two sacks while Hunter and senior Jayden Wickware had interceptions to lead a strong defensive game.
Villa is the epitome of this Cavers’ team. He’s a starting defensive end at 5-feet-10 and 140 pounds.
“He’s 110 percent heart,” said O’Connor, adding: “We’re always undersized. But we’re a really selfless team. We’ve formed such a tight bond, we don’t fear anyone.”
San Diego played its first football game in 1895 and was widely considered a powerhouse until 1970. Since then, the Cavers have made the playoffs only six times before last year.
Before this season, offensive line coach Billy Smith was seemingly alone in predicting a state championship.
“He kept telling us, ‘It’s state or bust!’ ” O’Connor said. “None of us believed him. We wanted to get back to (the section final) and win that. No one was thinking state.
“All the odds were against us, but we did it!”
Lindgren is a freelance writer.