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Claiborne, Samuels lead Trojans' all-league football selections

By: Matt Long, Sports Editor
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Posting a 12-2 record and earning a spot in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship game is a season that any football coach will take, including Oak Ridge’s Eric Cavaliere.

The Trojans had their best season in nearly a decade because of a talented roster full of hard-working coaches and athletes, the ladder of which were recently honored for their play in the Delta River League. The Trojans ended league play with a 4-1 record, finishing behind the only team to beat them, 5-0 Folsom.

The Trojans placed seven players on the Delta River League all-star team, including two players, Zach Claiborne and Jason Samuels, who received special recognition. Claiborne, along with Ponderosa’s Jeff Camilli, earned the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year award, while Samuels, along with Folsom’s Lucas Owan, was named co-Offensive Player of the Year.

Claiborne, listed at 6’1”, 195 pounds, was going up against bigger players every week, but it didn’t stop him from having a magnificent season. While it’s a league award, Claiborne finished with 25 ½ sacks in 14 games, tops in the state.

“Zach’s just an extraordinary athlete in terms of his explosiveness and strength,” Cavaliere said. “He’s very unique because of his size. To be as strong as he is, you’d think he would be a lot bigger and conversely, to be as quick as he is, you’d think he’d be a lot smaller. What set him apart this year was his ability to take instruction and coaching. Kevin Placek did a really good job of coaching him and Zach responded to that coaching and just put it all together this year.”

Claiborne was coming off a good junior season a year ago, a season in which he set a school record with 11 ½ sacks. He more than doubled that total this year, as he took his play to another level. He’s the school’s all-time sack leader.

As the quarterback, Samuels directed a potent offense that averaged 32 points per game. He completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,595 yards, while throwing 28 touchdown passes.

“Jason was coming off a junior year where he was hurt and missed six or seven games with a broken collarbone,” Cavaliere said. “It’s hard for a quarterback to be considered as a top returning player when he misses a big chunk of his junior year, but we knew what we had in him. He’s smart and accurate and we didn’t give up a lot of sacks this year and Jason’s ability to move and make plays was a big reason for that. He’s a complete player.”

Oak Ridge had five other players on the all-Delta River League team; Jacob Proul and Nick Gordon joined Claiborne on the defense side, while Byron Spain, Blake Martin and Jason Chapman were honored on the offensive side along with Samuels.

Proul played on the defensive line next to Claiborne, while Gordon set a school record at linebacker with 144 solo tackles.

“Jacob is a raw talent and a high-energy guy who needs to be playing in college because he’ll keep getting better,” Cavaliere said. “Nick is a guy who came out of nowhere. He honed his skills on the scout team as a junior, taking every rep, while playing behind two really good players in Preston Dean and Jake Rosada. He’s the most unassuming player that I’ve ever coached. He’s humble and doesn’t talk much, but when he puts the pads on all he does is make tackles. He’s a student of the game and fully absorbed everything that coach (Daren) Jonutz told him.”

Spain caught 57 passes for 918 yards and 11 touchdowns as Samuels’ top target. Martin led the team in rushing with 947 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Chapman paved the way as the team’s top offensive lineman.

“Byron was similar to Jason in that he was injured as a junior and always had a bump, bruise or sprain that kept him from being ready,” Cavaliere said. “He’s a talented player that performed this year and became more physical and was an excellent blocker.

“Blake is probably the hardest worker in our program. He’s a phenomenal kid and a team guy who brought a lot to the table in terms of leadership.

“Jason belongs on the all-time list as one of our best lineman. It’s not often you have a kid as big and as strong (6’4”, 300) as him and he really developed his speed and explosiveness this year. We moved him to tackle on the opposite side of his brother, Joe, and that was a big move for us and was a big reason why we were so successful on offense because we could run the ball to either side.”