Elk Grove High football’s ground and pound style is as vintage as the school itself — and it’s working to perfection.
By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor
New schools have been built all over Northern California, and the Sac-Joaquin Section is no exception to state-of-the-art classroom and athletic facilities sprouting up to address population growth and modernization needs.
Elk Grove High School was among the very first high schools in the state of California, and is certainly the oldest of the nine high schools in the Elk Grove Union High School District. Its current campus was built in 1964, and the school and its student body have stood the test of time in an environment that encourages innovation and expansion.
The Thundering Herd athletics programs have a deep tradition that is almost as old as the campus itself. Notable alumni includes nine current or former Major League Baseball players, professional golfer Spencer Levin, NBA legend Bill Cartwright, and current Chicago Bears Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs. And so, the “original” Elk Grove school is proud of its roots and athletic success.
This year’s version of the Thundering Herd football team is seeking to add its mark on the athletic legacy of the “old school” at the corner of Elk Grove Boulevard and Elk Grove-Florin Road.
“We believe that we have a reputation to uphold,” senior running back Robert Frazier said of being the first high school in Elk Grove. “This is still our city, and we want to prove that we are the best.”
Despite no longer being the only school in town or even the biggest, Elk Grove remains a draw for the City’s athletes.
“Each one of the new schools has taken a little chunk out of Elk Grove’s enrollment, so we are not the big school in town anymore,” head coach Chris Nixon said. “We still get real committed hard workers that want to come to Elk Grove and be a part of the tradition.”
The Thundering Herd, who are presently 7-0 overall and 2-0 in the Delta Valley Conference, play on a modern synthetic turf field, but have stayed true to their old-fashioned, run-heavy wing-T offensive scheme. With so many programs moving to spread offenses and gimmicks, Elk Grove is a straight forward “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense.
“Familiarity is a big deal. You see the offense run the same from Junior Herd on up,” said Nixon, who was the offensive coordinator in the 1990s before taking over the program in 2008. “We tried to toy with the ‘pistol’ offense a little bit in 2008 and 2009, and have thrown in a few wrinkles on occasion, but you go back to what the kids know and what works.”
That tried and true formula has yielded amazing success. The Thundering Herd has recaptured its glory with 19 wins in its last 20 games, including a 12-1 season in 2011 that ended in the Division II section semifinals. Defending state champion Folsom derailed Elk Grove’s perfect season with a 42-28 win, courtesy of uncharacteristic turnovers.
The defeat dealt a crushing blow, but also served as huge motivation to finish the 2012 season on a better note.
Key to the shot at redemption is once again the old school offense with plenty of returning talent and some new pieces to plug into the scheme. Frazier, a senior running back/defensive back who rushed for 1,494 yards and 21 TDs last year, heads a veteran backfield that includes junior quarterback Tommy Arnold and junior running backs Wadus Parker and Elijah Jones.
Frazier, Parker and Jones are the latest runners to carry the load. The trio and an undersized offensive line still run the same plays that Nixon has called for years, but with more of a reliance on speed and quickness. The results thus far are a combined 2,080 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns.
“We have had to adapt to the game and the turf fields since I was running the offense in the 1990s,” Nixon said. “You still need some horses to carry the ball, but they are just not as big as the horses were in the ‘90s.”
Frazier is just 5-foot-8, but has a burst and cutting ability that can leave defenders doing a lot of chasing. He has accounted for 1,097 yards on the ground and 18 tackles on defense, as well as three interceptions, including one returned for a score. His athleticism has wowed recruiters, but his lack of the size has kept major Div. I programs at a distance.
“He may be undersized, but there are programs that will find a way to use that kind of athlete,” Nixon said. “It’s not all about height, it’s about the heart.”
Parker and Jones are equally athletic and dangerous on both sides of the ball. Parker has 762 yards rushing and a 9.4 yards per carry average to go with 14 touchdowns on offense. He has added 19 tackles and a team-leading four sacks from his linebacker position. Jones, who is as good of a third option at running back as there may be in the section with 221 yards on just 31 carries, has shined brightest on defense with 42 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
“It is a luxury, but also a necessity because those guys also play defense,” Nixon said. “You can give guys a rest and you don’t lose anything on offense, and keep them fresh for the defense.”
While the backfield gets the glory and the statistics, each member of that group is quick to heap praise and credit on the linemen who make their jobs on the field easier.
“The credit goes to the offensive line,” Frazier said. “They work their butts off in practice and hit the sled every day. It’s all about the scheme and effort. When you go up against bigger guys, the low man wins.”
The self-named “Hammerheads” may lack size — only tackles Marcus Worthy and Jaime Cruz top 240 pounds — but technique and desire fuel the group to pave the way for their running backs and quarterback. Every practice, you can find Worthy, Cruz, Noah McMahon, Matt Loller, Dior Vela, Casey Whalen, Mikey Wright, Noah Letuligasenoa, and B’won Canada attacking the blocking sled for nearly an hour.
“We probably emphasize the sled work a lot more than other programs,” Nixon said of line coach Moe Loller’s routine with his charges. “They work on fundamentals, working details with their feet, hands and hips constantly. We even watch film of the sled work to get better.”
Nixon attributes the Hammerheads’ talent — both physically and intellectually — for the success of the offe nse. He and his coaches rely on the linemen and quarterback to pass along information about defensive schemes to make adjustments that will keep the Thundering Herd running game moving forward.
In all aspects of the game, Nixon emphasizes effort and accountability. At the start of the 2011 season, Elk Grove began a practice of establishing individual goals to help achieve the team goals. Every player writes down his goals for each game at the team’s weekly meal on a “goal card.” The players then give the card to a teammate to commit their goals in writing and make themselves accountable to their teammates.
The goal cards are a new tradition, but the accountability is a long-standing part of the responsibility and tradition of representing Elk Grove High School.
“There is a pride that we take in being the original school in town,” Arnold said. “We know that we are under a microscope as representatives of the school and the team, and that it is real big how you conduct yourself in school and outside in the community.”
So far, the Thundering Herd are representing quite well as they strive for a successful present and future built on past traditions and schemes established long before they set foot on campus.
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