The Arroyo Grande High School football team has come a long way.
In the final road game of a season filled with them, the Eagles defeated Righetti 27-20 to improve to 2-0 in the Mountain League.
Arroyo Grande’s Ethan Royal engineered what would prove to be the game-winning drive with less than 1:30 left on the clock and the score tied.
Arroyo Grande road warriors this season
Every game of the season thus far has been a road game for Arroyo Grande (6-3), which has been unable to play at home due to construction at Doug Hitchen Stadium.
Nine straight weeks of football has led to some banged up players. But it has also produced a talented football team.
“Our mantra this whole season has been, ‘There’s things you can control, and there’s things you can’t,’” head coach Mike Hartman said. “We couldn’t control where we played our games. The more energy you spend worrying about that stuff is wasted energy. So, let’s handle the things we can control. That was our talk all week, and the kids did a great job.”
The Eagles were slow out of the gate, dropping their opener to San Luis Obispo. They rattled off four straight wins before falling in overtime to one of the best teams in the Central Section Division 1, Bullard. The next week, they dropped another test to Menlo-Atherton, a top Central Coast Section team.
Since then, Arroyo Grande hasn’t lost.
Part of the team’s success can be attributed to the emergence of junior quarterback Ethan Royal, who notably only played part of the game against Bullard and didn’t play against Menlo-Atherton.
Royal’s development at QB
Royal also wasn’t a part of the dismantling that Righetti handed down to Arroyo Grande last season, but he helped make sure it didn’t happen again. At times, the normally potent Eagle run game had trouble moving the ball, but Royal and his receivers consistently bailed out the offense on late downs.
Royal was 16 of 29 for 225 yards and two touchdowns. He also had nine carries for 51 yards and another score.
On the Eagles’ final drive, which began just shy of midfield, Royal connected with Ben Salerno on back-to-back plays to set up a 2-yard score by Mason Thompson.
Entering Friday’s game, Royal had thrown for only one touchdown and had two interceptions on the season. Most of his damage had instead come on the ground, in the form of 334 yards on 63 carries with seven scores.
But as the season has progressed, he has steadily improved his completion percentage. On Friday, he was asked to throw more times at any game in the season — and he responded.
“(Royal is) an incredible young man who has a great sense of himself,” Hartman said. “And he knows who he is, and he knows who he isn’t. He keeps working at his craft every week and gets better and better.”
While his completion percentage wasn’t quite what it’s been, when he connected, it was for meaningful yardage. He looked comfortable in the pocket, looking off the safety to set up multiple plays over 30 yards.
“They were running Cover 3, so their safety (Kidasi Nepa) was responsible for the whole middle of the field,” Royal said. “He’s a good player; there’s no way I could throw the ball without him not being there.”
One of his scores went to his brother, Travis, and Mason Garcia caught another on a 6-yard slant.
Royal and the Eagles are no strangers to close games at this point in the season. Just last week, Arroyo Grande stopped Paso Robles on the goal line with time expired to earn its first league win.
The game also marked the return of star running back Caleb Tomasin, who has missed the past four weeks due to injury.
“Oh, it’s huge,” Royal said of Tomasin’s return. “He’s such a big part of our team. I feel like we did a good job of battling without him, but it’s always nice to have him back.”
Righetti’s star receiver Jake Steels did not play due to an ankle injury.
The Doug Hitchen Stadium and the Eagles will be ready for next week, as Arroyo Grande attempts to clinch the Mountain League title against St. Joseph. The Knights beat Paso Robles 21-20 on Friday.
Other scores from SLO and Northern Santa Barbara county teams
Mission Prep 29, Santa Maria 27
Atascadero 24, Pioneer Valley 10
St. Joseph 21, Paso Robles 20
Santa Ynez 41, Cabrillo 14
San Luis Obispo 44, Nipomo 13
Templeton 48, Morro Bay 19
Santa Barbara 27, Lompoc 21