When it comes to prep sports, Davis is something of a titletown. The Blue Devil athletic program is in triple digits when it comes to section championships — including four more crowns just last month in boys and girls water polo and boys and girls cross country.
But in American high school sports, football is still king. And 25 years ago this week, the gridiron Devils were kings of the Sac-Joaquin Section.
On Dec. 9, 1988, a DHS squad led by legendary coach Dave Whitmire — and featuring future NFL standouts Jason Fisk and Tony Cline — beat previously undefeated Merced, 33-25, at Modesto Junior College to capture the section title.
Take a trip down memory lane …
Three games into the 1988 season, Davis didn’t look like a championship squad. A Week 1 tie with Nevada Union was followed up by a win, but then McClatchy made short work of the Blue Devils, 28-6, the next week to send them to 1-1-1.
Between the loss and some disparaging postgame comments from Lions coach Bob Sandoval — who was bitter from three previous blowouts at the hands of DHS — the locals picked up a burning desire for revenge. And in a satisfying twist of fate, they got it nearly three months later, edging the Lions, 35-34, on Nov. 18 to post the program’s first-ever playoff victory.
The winning, however, started earlier than that as the Devils got victories in five of their final six games, including a 28-17 triumph at rival Woodland in front of an estimated 5,000 fans in DHS’ season finale.
Down 17-7 in the second half, the Blue Devils reeled off 21 unanswered points to win the game, clinch their first Delta League title since 1982 and reach the postseason for the first time since ’83. (That year they lost a first-round contest to McClatchy, 11-10.)
In beating Woodland, Davis fullback Alex Lindert scored three touchdowns, including one that was set up by junior Matt Leggett’s blocked punt.
After finishing 6-2-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play, the Devils were well-represented on the all-league teams. Whitmire — who retired in 1999 after going 131-68-4 and posting 18 winning seasons in his 20 years at the helm — earned Coach of the Year, end Bryon Rockwell was the Defensive Player of the Year, he and seven others were All-Delta first-teamers and nine more DHS players got honorable mention. Since some of the locals played both ways, the 17 all-league selections represented the entire Davis starting lineup.
Sporting one of the area’s top defenses, thanks in part to the coaching of defensive coordinator Bob Johnson, the Blue Devils were confident heading into the Nov. 18 playoff opener at Halden Field against McClatchy, which was starting its backup QB — 15-year-old sophomore Tony Whitehead.
Though Whitehead threw five interceptions, two of which were returned for TDs, and DHS opened up a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, the 5,000 fans in attendance were still treated to a nail-biter.
After Lindert ran for the first score (his first of three on the day to go with 95 yards), Cline and Dan Crummey each brought picks back to the house within a span of 1:05.
But the Lions fought back, eventually tying things up at 28-28 in the third quarter. The Devils answered with a seven-minute scoring drive that was capped by a Lindert touchdown and Cline’s fifth successful extra-point kick of the day to make it 35-28 with 11 minutes left.
McClatchy quickly returned to the end zone to make it 35-34, and needed just the PAT to tie the game. However Cline, who was supposed to be responsible for containing a possible two-point conversion run to the outside, gambled by going for the block and it paid off.
With neither team scoring again, Cline’s denial of the McClatchy kick put DHS in the Nov. 25 quarterfinals.
There, the Blue Devils took on San Juan, and in what is generally acknowledged as one of Whitmire’s best-coached games ever, Davis won a 35-3 blowout in front of 5,500 people at Halden Field.
During the game, Whitmire and his staff seemed to know everything San Juan wanted to do before it happened, helping the Devil defense allow only 119 total yards, including just 36 in the second half. San Juan’s only score came on a third-period field goal.
DHS, meanwhile, got three touchdown passes from quarterback Brian Wernicke, one each to Lindert, Jason Burns and Andy Jones. For Burns, an unsung hero all season, it was his first varsity TD.
Crummey ran for 102 yards (95 in the second half) and two scores as the Devils advanced to the semifinals, also known as the Sacramento City Championship.
Halden Field packed 6,200 fans in to watch Davis defeat Cordova, 24-13, in that Dec. 2 contest.
The locals got off to a slow start, and the Lancers had the ball leading 13-10 in the third period. That’s when Craig Skyberg, a Blue Devil baseball standout who went out for high school football for the first time that fall, made the play that would turn the game around. …
Skyberg jumped an out route and returned the interception 34 yards to paydirt. Cline’s extra point made it 17-13, then the DHS defense took over, eventually holding Cordova scoreless for the final 18 minutes of the game.
Wernicke connected with his good friend Jeff Moore, the team’s leading receiver, for the Devils’ final TD.
Earlier in the game, trailing 7-0, Davis went on an epic 19-play drive (one of the plays a six-yard rush by Fisk, normally an offensive linemen) that took 10 minutes but didn’t make the end zone. Instead, Cline converted a 23-yard FG.
The victory sent the locals to the SJS championship game, where they would take on 13-0 Merced.
Playing away from Halden Field for the first time in a month, the Blue Devil defense held the potent Bears’ Fly-T offense to 284 yards, 110 below its season average.
When DHS had the ball, it was Wernicke who led the way. Dependable but without spectacular stats throughout the year, Wernicke completed a season-high 16 passes for a season-best 231 yards and three second-half touchdowns.
The Devils were down 13-7 at intermission, their only score coming on the first of Crummey’s three TDs (two rushing and one receiving).
Later, a third-quarter scoring toss from Wernicke to Crummey made it 14-13, but Merced matched that with a touchdown and, after failing on a two-point conversion attempt, went back up 19-14.
Moments later, Davis took the lead for good when Wernicke and Moore hooked up for an 80-yard TD pass and Cline’s extra point made it 21-19 with 4:31 left in the third period.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Skyberg caught a 14-yard pass from Wernicke to increase the advantage to 27-19.
Merced responded by cutting it to 27-25, but Crummey put the game out of reach when he ran for a 2-yard touchdown in the final minute and the Blue Devils celebrated the only section title in the history of the program.
Notes: The Delta League first-teamers that year were Rockwell, Crummey, Jones, Lindert, linebacker Bob Blair, DE Sean Yeo, guard Larry Wold and Fisk, as an offensive tackle. Wernicke, Moore, Skyberg, Cline, Burns, offensive tackle Mark Neal, cornerback Chad Woods, defensive tackle Aaron King and LB Brandon Johnson earned honorable mention. … Cline and Fisk came back for dominating senior seasons, then both accepted full-ride scholarships to Stanford before becoming the only DHS graduates to be drafted into the NFL. Cline played four years in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers before retiring in 1999. Fisk lasted 12 seasons, playing for the Minnesota Vikings, Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams. He started for the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. … From the motivation dept.: As the story goes, the Blue Devil cheerleaders brought Blow Pops to the football players at a midseason practice and coach Whitmire noticed how popular they were. He then offered his players one Blow Pop each to win the first playoff game, two for the second playoff win, etc. By the time the championship game rolled around, Blow Pops were all over the school.
— Reach Chris Saur at [email protected] or 530-747-8049.