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A long dormant giant, Cordova Football was at the forefront of its league and the concussion safety movement   Story By JIM McCUE |...

A long dormant giant, Cordova Football was at the forefront of its league and the concussion safety movement

  Story By JIM McCUE | Photos By JAMES K. LEASH

  If you buy it, they will come. College football programs discovered that funding attracts lots of talented athletes and legions of supporters. Boosters and alumni have resurrected programs and built dynasties in recent years with unprecedented funding for facilities, uniforms and support services for athletes.

  But there are very few Phil Knights and Red McCombs in small high school communities to contribute to the cause of returning once-proud programs to their glory days. Community support might yield louder crowds and snack shack volunteers at the high school level, but athletic programs still must struggle to get funding from schools, school districts and parents.

  So, how can once-mighty Cordova High recapture the glory and the players who have migrated east to Folsom and other communities in the decades since the Lancers were considered the area’s best team?


  The Cordova High football program is receiving $385,750 over three years for equipment upgrades and implementation of a comprehensive training program. The bulk of the funds (more than $250,000) were granted this year in order for the Lancers to obtain new helmets equipped with sensors to prevent and monitor brain injuries and concussions, new uniforms for the entire program, and year-round training for all players through a local training facility.

  “From my point of view, it was a win-win,” Rancho Cordova Mayor David Sander said. “We were able to help a historically awesome sports program and football program at Cordova High…and, at the same time, contribute something really positive to sports, and football in particular, that hasn’t been done before.”

  The advanced technology helmets are outfitted with Riddell’s Insite Impact Response System that includes a sensor unit inside each helmet, handheld alert monitors for trainers and player management software. The software is used to establish players’ baseline information — including height, weight, position and cognitive condition — and then monitor head impacts to determine if any hits exceed impact thresholds. If a monitor indicates that a player has exceeded the impact threshold in relation to his baseline, then trainers are instructed to remove the player from practice or game activity and undergo assessment and/or concussion protocol.

  The new technology, uniforms and training program is all part of the grand plan that Darren Nill envisioned when he was being considered for the head coaching position before the 2015 season.

  “We want to return the program to prominence and make it cool once again to play football at Cordova,” Nill said. “The master plan, besides addressing safety issues and concerns, is to get kids to come out and come back to Cordova to play football.”

  With Folsom now the marquee football program that Cordova once was back in the 1970s and 80s, the Lancers’ numbers—of both players and wins—steadily decreased through the years as the best athletes in Cordova’s enrollment area drove a few exits east on Highway 50 or simply abandoned the sport at the high school level.

  While Nill had a clear vision for reviving the program, he did not know exactly how he could achieve the vision, particularly where he would find the monetary and other resources to do so.

  “I built a relationship over the course of my first year as head coach with the City and the community,” Nill said.

  As the relationship began to grow, the coach shared his idea to attract players to the program and bring the program back to relevance with city staff. Soon after, the city, including Mayor Sander who is also a Rancho Cordova Athletic Association board member, jumped on board and steered Nill toward its Community Enhancement Fund program.

  The Community Enhancement Fund, which was created and is supported by Measure H, a half-cent local sales tax measure approved by Rancho Cordova voters in November 2014, generates approximately $7.2 million annually in revenues for the city’s general fund. The community grants about $1.8 million of the revenue to applicants ranging from individuals, organizations, businesses and community partners for investment in the Rancho Cordova community. Projects that receive Community Enhacement Fund grants must “clearly exhibit support for community priorities, including arts, culture, history and entertainment; education, after-school programs, and school gardens; sports; and overall community benefit,” according to the city.

  The eventual granting of the funds took considerable time for Nill to write a grant application and then go through the process which includes review and vetting by city staff, various application training and work sessions and a final vote by the city council on all applications.

  “We just wanted the opportunity to provide the best for our athletes, and frankly make Cordova that much more attractive for student-athletes,” Sander said. “When you are not at the top of the heap, you can bleed athletes to other communities. This is an opportunity to make them think twice about the level of support they are given.”

  While the keystone of the grant application was the helmets to address short- and long-term player safety, the funds also had an end goal to revitalize the once dominant and proud football program.

  Previous attempts to return Cordova football to is past glory have been exercises in futility and frustration as the Lancers have has made just one postseason appearance since the City of Rancho Cordova was incorporated in 2003. Legendary head coach Max Miller led the Lancers to the playoffs 10 years ago, where they lost to Grant-Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2006, and four different coaches have managed just one winning record in the last decade.

  Through eight weeks of action this season, the Lancers have a 6-2 overall record and sat alone in first place in the Sierra Valley Conference. Cordova (3-0 SVC) can clinch at least a share of the SVC title with a win over Liberty Ranch-Galt (6-2, 2-1 SVC) on Oct. 28.

  Seniors Deante McCullough (1,046 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns), Kenneth Haney (team-high 78 tackles), and Terrill Johnson (3 interceptions) have led on and off the field while a host of underclassmen give Lancers’ supporters hope that success will not be temporary. Junior defensive end Kelechi Njoku is among Sac-Joaquin Section leaders with 14 sacks and sophomore quarterback Xavier Johnson has accounted for 2,113 total yards of offense and 21 TDs as future leaders on both sides of the ball. Wide receivers Calvin Augusta and Alvin Banks are both underclassmen who have combined for 13 TD catches while sophomore defensive back Raymond Fite leads the team with four interceptions.

  Another part of Nill’s plan is starting to take shape as more players are coming out to play football and local kids are attracted to their neighborhood school and its football program. That includes one former Folsom player who is again enrolled at Cordova.

  “We are getting more players and more fans,” Nill said of the community beginning to recognize Cordova football as a legitimate program. “The communication is much improved with the city and the community and everyone is beginning to rally behind the Lancers again.”

  Sander added: “People are going to look at Rancho Cordova and say, ‘Wow! Isn’t that cool what they are doing down there? Hopefully not only can we inspire the region as to what’s possible with youth sports, we are actually helping football, the great American sport, with this particular effort.”

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