At the end of the 2021 high school football season, the San Ramon Valley varsity team could only sit and wonder what could have been after their upset loss in the North Coast Section Division II playoffs.
The Wolves came into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and a NCS title and a berth in a NorCal playoff game seemed almost a foregone conclusion. Then came the 17-14 loss to Campolindo in the semifinals and it was all about, "what if".
Fast forward to this season. Instead of "what if" by the end of the season, the Wolves saw many hopes and dreams answered as the team advanced all the way to the CIF State 2A Championship game.
And even though the Wolves fell 31-24 in overtime to Granite Hills of El Cajon, there certainly was no "what ifs".
"This was such a fun team to coach," SRV coach Aaron Becker said. "That was the fastest 15 weeks of a season ever. These kids played hard and played for each other."
It seemed like only yesterday when Becker and his staff started plotting out the season.
"You try to treat it like it is 100% a new season," Becker said. "You try not to put expectations on the kids. As a staff had very little expectations in terms of wins and losses."
Which is a smart move given the East Bay Athletic League Mountain Division is arguably the best league in Northern California.
"In the EBAL you know you are going to have a real tough game every week," said Becker. "You look at the totality of the season and hope you have enough good players at the end of the season."
There were some injuries along the way, but the Wolves still got out to a 5-0 start, with an explosive offense and a tight defense.
"By midseason, we started to realize we were good," Becker said. Then came a two-week stretch where the Wolves fell to McClymonds (CIF State 2-AA finalist) 45-42 and Clayton Valley (NCS D-I finalist) 42-28.
"That was an emotional shootout loss to Mack," Becker said. "We knew Clayton Valley would represent well. We also started to get hit by the injury bug. We knew we had to piece this together."
The next week San Ramon Valley came back with a 24-14 win over Amador Valley.
"We beat a gritty Amador team that had size and held us to our lowest point total of the season," Becker said of the game that stopped the two-game slide. "After that we caught fire and hit our stride."
First came a 38-21 win over Cal High, followed by a 48-20 win over rival Monte Vista to close out the regular season. Two days later the Wolves were awarded the No. 1 seed in the D-II NCS playoffs again. Inexplicably, SRV was sent on the road to Berkeley for their first round game. Becker believes it was a blessing.
"If you are the top seed and you have a home game, you might relax some and feel too comfortable," said Becker. "We had been a really good road team and we went to a place where we didn't expect too many of our fans to show up."
That brought a 56-20 win and a spot in the semifinals against Foothill bringing the team one step closer to the finals.
"Foothill's coaches are very focused, and they had some really good skill guys," Becker said. "Sometimes the game before the championship is the hardest to win. We didn't want to overlook the semifinals again."
And they didn't. Disciplined and focused, the Wolves secured their spot in the finals with a 42-13 win over Foothill.
The same night Campolindo survived a 42-41 win over Rancho Cotate to grab the spot in the finals against SRV. Redemption time.
Campo came into the game 12-0 and were the defending NCS champs. But there was no letdown this time and the Wolves took the NCS title with a 35-21 win.
"They wanted to beat Campo," Becker said of his team. "They were going nuts. We knew by looking at (Campo's) schedule that we would be the best team they had played."
Now it was uncharted territory, with a NorCal matchup at home against traditional power Marin Catholic.
"We knew their history and we knew that CIF doesn't make these NorCal games to be lopsided," Becker said of Marin Catholic. "We felt watching film that we could win this game, but it was the top two teams playing."
On rainy night, San Ramon Valley did everything they needed and came away with a 19-17 win.
"I thought the rain hurt us more," Becker said. "But the kids gutted it out." The win gave the Wolves a spot in the CIF State Finals.
"You do think about it," Becker said of a potential state berth. "You think that it would be amazing to get there, but your mind doesn't absorb it." Until you make it.
"Then your brain says -- you're going to state," said Becker. "The town really rallied around it -- our team is going to state."
It seemed like most of the town of Danville made the trip down to Mission Viejo and Saddleback Junior College for the title game with Granite Hills of El Cajon.
And what a show the team put on, going toe-to-toe with the Southern California champs. Quarterback Luke Baker, who was sensational in the game, found the end zone in the last minute of regulation to tie the game 24-24 and force overtime.
In the extra period, Granite Hills scored on their first possession, forcing the Wolves to also find the end zone to force a second overtime. They fell just short, and the title went to Granite Hills.
"They were all we could handle on the line," Becker said of Granite Hills. "They won fair and square, but we never felt like we lost the game."
When asked if there any key players that developed over the course of the season to make a difference, Becker had a simple answer.
"There were too many to name," the coach said. From question marks in the summer to Northern California champions in the span of 15 weeks produced quite a ride.
"We were getting to end of the summer and didn't know who was going to be the tackles," Becker explained.
Seniors such as Caleb Padrid, Trevor Scott and Laird Wheeler certainly performed very well to end their high school careers by making it to the state final. As for next season, the Wolves are just reloading, not rebuilding.
For starters, Baker, who threw 46 touchdowns on the season, is back. So is top running back John Pau Mendoza, as are the starting tackles for the Wolves. On defense San Ramon returns three starters on the line, two linebackers, and two defensive backs.
"Next year we feel we should be strong," Becker said. "But it's tough finding preseason games -- our schedule is not set yet. Then there is the tough league, and the injury bug is always a thought."
One new thing next season -- expectations of what could be after going all the way to the state finals this season.
"It makes it more tangible," Becker said of going to state. "It proved that it is not just for the De La Salle's of the world. The mystery of it was removed."
It was a tremendous season for the Wolves, going as far as possible. It was special for the team, coaching staff, and school, and uplifting for the entire community.
It's going to be fun to see the Wolves next season now that they have the experience of going to the state finals under their belts.
And we'll be there in the fall to follow along.