LODI -- The bar has been raised so high for Le Grand football that section championships now are greeted with expressions of joy and relief, almost in equal parts.
It's as if the Bulldogs fully expect to contend for and win Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 titles each year, as they did for the third straight season Saturday night with a 30-12 victory over Waterford at the Grape Bowl.
The achievement is a wonder in itself, but the high expectations placed on the program are an even better indication of the level reached by the Southern League power.
"It's good to know that this is a young team that already has bought into what the coaches are doing," said junior running back Ryan Martinez. "We're contending for the section every year, and the players coming into the program already know that."
Martinez certainly did his part on the damp FieldTurf, carrying the ball 39 times for 240 yards and a touchdown as the Bulldogs completed an 11-2 season.
Yes, there still is a highly unlikely chance, with a wild combination of losses by other teams, that Le Grand could find itself in a NorCal playoff bowl, which would give them a shot at a second straight trip to a state bowl game in Carson. But for now the Bulldogs seem content with their season having come to an end at the venerable horseshoe stadium.
"Likely it's not going to happen, but we'll play anybody," said Bulldogs coach Rick Martinez. "Next year, maybe it's something we'll shoot for. It's great and and honor to be in the mix and we'll always work toward that goal. That's our target."
It also was a season to remember for Waterford, which at 9-3 set a school record for wins, points scored and fewest points allowed as the Wildcats advanced to their first section final.
"Le Grand's a very good football team that has been here before," said Waterford coach Todd Sevick. "Our guys played hard. The big key was that in the two games we played them this year they didn't turn the ball over once. They didn't make mistakes and we needed to play error-free."
Le Grand sprinted out to a 16-0 halftime lead by outgaining Waterford 264-24 over the opening 24 minutes. Ryan Martinez already had amassed 165 yards on 24 carries by intermission, and his 4-yard run with 4 minutes, 6 seconds left in the half gave his team the 16-point margin.
Waterford, with star running back Dylan Gonzalez in a wheelchair after suffering a devastating knee injury in last week's 28-12 semifinal victory over Highlands, turned to Branson Angle to get back in the game.
Angle carried nine straight times in an 80-yard march, covering the last 34 for the score that brought Waterford within 16-6. Two defensive stops later, Angle opened the fourth quarter with a 78-yard run to pull the Wildcats closer at 16-12.
All Waterford needed was another defensive stop, or a turnover, to be right back in the game, and it almost came.
Le Grand, behind six more Martinez runs, moved into the red zone at the Waterford 17. On second down, quarterback Mauricio Contreras threw a ball in the left flat that was bobbled and dropped by two converging Waterford defensive backs.
Had either been able to make the pick there was nothing to stop them from scoring a go-ahead touchdown. Instead, Le Grand scored two plays later on a run by Dustin Slate, then iced the win on the third play of Waterford's ensuing possession when Shane Grissom intercepted a tipped pass and scored from 17 yards out.
Angle finished with 185 yards on 12 carries and was one of many players to earn the praise of his coach.
"This team is so unselfish," Sevick said. "Take a guy like Branson Angle and we all saw tonight how he can play. But when Dylan was healthy Branson focused on defense. We have guys all over the field like that, guys who could play both ways but did what was best for the team."
On the other side of the field, Ryan Martinez looked as fresh as possible for someone who was one call away from 40 carries.
"I don't think there's a number of carries that is too many for me," he said. "Whatever it takes. Just give me the ball. This is a good victory. Sure, we'd like to go back to Carson someday, but this is a section title and there's never anything wrong with that."
Division 5 Championship
Le Grand 30, Waterford 12
Le Grand 3 13 0 14 30
Waterford 0 0 6 6 12
LG FG, Daniel Rosas 37
LG Christian Williams 11 pass from Mauricio Contreras (kick failed)
LG Ryan Martinez 4 run (Rosas kick)
WAT Branson Angle 34 run (pass failed)
WAT Angle 78 run (run failed)
LG Dustin Slate 5 run (Rosas kick)
LG Shane Grissom 17 interception return (Rosas kick)
Records: Le Grand 11-2, Waterford 9-3