SportStars Magazine

Small Schools, Big Goals

Storied Northern, Sac-Joaquin Section Small School Football Programs Prepare To Chase Hometown Glory Once Again •

Story By IKE DODSON

From about the Oregon border to Merced, small-school football teams in the east half of California have become a utopia of civic pride and hometown lore. An epic catch, a diving tackle — even a clutch boot through the uprights can spawn a small-town legend.

Below is a breakdown of some of the state’s top teams of meager enrollment and the gridders who make them special.

NORTHERN SECTION

Before he bolted for 100 yards and a touchdown in a 38-6 shellacking of Durham in the Mid-Valley League finale last week, lanky East Nicolaus running back Corey Taylor took a solemn knee on his sideline before the game.

After his performance helped the Spartans win a battle of two 9-0 teams, Taylor joined his team north of the stadium, near a group of vehicles that parked beyond the soggy East Nicolaus dirt track.

The players and coaches shared tearful embraces with the family of longtime booster and East Nicolaus teacher, Laurie Goss, who died of cancer just two days prior.

It’s the kind of thing that small-school football is made of.

“We dedicated this season to her,” East Nicolaus coach Travis Barker explained. “She would park here (at the north end of the stadium) and watch every game. Our boys knew what they were playing for.”

Rallying on emotions and the assistance of the rain and muck, East Nicolaus stifled Durham’s normally potent passing offense and took bruising control of the clock — and ultimately the scoreboard.

“The rain was definitely in our favor,” Barker admitted. “Durham is a very good football team and we will see them again. We are expecting another battle.”

Durham coach Skip Riley didn’t blame the steady rainfall.

“The weather was a factor, but we have to be able to play in that, because East Nicolaus had to play in that,” Riley said. “It’s all equal footing.”

Riley agrees the two teams will meet again. It’s what happened last year in the MVL finale and Northern Section Div. IV playoffs — East Nicolaus won both meetings.

Durham could find an edge in good weather, considering that even before last week, the Trojans had a passer (Adin DuBose) and rusher (Manny Tovalin) eclipse the 1,000-yard mark and Durham was out-dueling teams 359-57.

The Div. III Northern Section playoffs are Sutter’s to lose, but they probably won’t.

The top-seeded Huskies are 9-1, perfect against California teams (beaten week zero by Utah power Orem), and dismantled the toughest opposition in the division (West Valley-Cottonwood) by a 31-0 score last postseason. West Valley is the No. 2 seed with a record of 5-4.

Sutter’s offense has rolled up an astounding 3,614 rushing yards behind three main runners (Trever Facey, Bryce Kunkle and Tyler Reynolds). Reynolds has also kept teams honest by passing for 1,948 yards on a 75 percent completion rating and 18-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Sutter should contend for a state bowl title after falling 27-10 to Oakdale to end a then-perfect season in the CIF Division 3-A NorCal State Bowl Championships.

In Div. V, the powerful legs of Tony Rogers (1,215 yards) and Sawyer Durkin (1,183 yards) have led to 31 scores for 9-1 Chester, and the squad should outlast the likes of Fall River-McArthur (8-2), Modoc-Alturas (5-5) and Quincy (7-3) in a top-heavy bracket.

SAC-JOAQUIN SECTION

Placer’s Anthony Kerrigan.

The stars have finally aligned for prolific Placer-Auburn football coach Joey Montoya, who chases the legacy of his own grandfather, Bill Miller, who won five of the first seven SJS Div. II titles with the Hillmen in the 1970s.

Montoya was a runner-up with Pioneer in 2007, and is a three-time SJS runner-up with Placer since taking the reigns of his alma mater in 2007. Montoya, 94-39 at Placer, has watched four solid shots at a section title be thwarted.

In 2008, Montoya’s Hillmen won a dramatic court ruling that literally stopped a Colfax bus-trek to Oakdale and replaced the Falcons with Placer in the Div IV bracket. The Hillmen upset Oakdale and beat Dixon, but succumbed to the perfect 13-0 championship season of Whitney-Rocklin.

A year later Placer fell 61-40 in the SJS finals to eventual-state champion Modesto Christian and future NFL talent Isaiah Burse. The Hillmen appeared poised to take it all in 2012 with their own future pro, Eddie Vanderdoes, but Escalon landed a shocking upset in Auburn and Central Catholic-Modesto, a team Placer beat that season, won section and state crowns.

The Hillmen roared back to the playoffs in 2015 and reached the semifinals at 12-0, but perhaps the best Central Catholic team in program history won that game and three more to finish a 16-0 season and state title run.

Most recently, Placer led 14-0 in last year’s Div. IV finale against Manteca, but fell 50-28 to a Buffaloes team that should have probably played a division higher.

That’s all history.

Placer (9-1) is the division’s undisputed favorite this year after an impressive 49-20 rout of a Lincoln (8-2) squad that took a 10-seed in the 16-team D2 bracket. Placer has played tenacious since a preseason defeat to Nevada Union-Grass Valley. The Hillmen have already beaten six playoff teams behind an inspired defense led by Pioneer Valley League Defensive Co-MVPs Anthony Kerrigan and Chase Laguna-Scott. Kerrigan, quarterback Michael Stuck, receiver Travis Warren and running back Mario Perez lead the offense.

“We are hitting our stride at the right time,” Montoya said Monday. “I am very excited about the way our kids have played and the progress our team has made.

“I knew when we had 14 juniors and three sophomore starting that it was only a matter of time for this team.”

Placer’s top opposition is No. 2-seed Casa Roble-Orangevale (5-5), fifth-seeded Woodland (6-4) and Sierra Valley Conference champion El Dorado-Placerville (7-3).

Standout cornerback Maurice Gaines of Div. V-favorite Capital Christian-Sacramento.

Sonora (8-2) is poised atop the beefy Div. V bracket after rebounding from a stunning 0-2 start to the season. The first defeat was to state-power Oakdale (9-1), one of the best teams in the CIF, regardless of division. But a 27-12 defeat to Lodi (4-6) had state football fans wondering what was plaguing the program that reached the CIF Division 4-AA Northern Regional bowl round in 2015 and went 11-0 (before being upset by Capital Christian-Sacramento) in 2016.

Sonora is led by QB Jake Gookin and all-purpose standouts Jack Camara and Rico Sanchez after losing standout Kane Rogers for the season to a knee injury. The Wildcats beat second-seed Calaveras 59-50 in Mother Lode League play, but neither Sonora nor Calaveras are the favorite here, thanks to a controversial transfer.

Jake Cruz, who passed for 2,684 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior for Whitney, was denied eligibility by the SJS when he transferred to Capital Christian this season, but he won an appeal and played in the last two games of the regular season for the Cougars (7-3). Capital Christian won those games by a combined 112-26 margin and have only been beaten by one California team (Grant-Sacramento in Div. II).

The Div. VI bracket is a versatile grouping with championship-minded programs that know how to win in the playoffs. Seven-time SJS champ Bradshaw Christian-Sacramento (7-3) is the top seed and favorite, thanks to a pair of running backs (Mateo Bromstead and Gerret Robbins) that combined for over 2,500 all-purpose yards and 36 touchdowns during the regular season.

But Bradshaw has to survive a bracket that includes the section’s traditional small-school powerhouses, second-seed Escalon (6-4), third-seed Summerville (8-2), four-seed Modesto Christian (5-5), five-seed Gustine (8-2) and six-seed Hilmar (5-5). Gustine and Summerville are still chasing their first blue banner, but Escalon and Hilmar combine for 14 section titles and 26 finals appearances. Modesto Christian dropped a 36-33 overtime thriller to Capital Christian in week No. 1.

In Div VII, the SJS will likely surrender a first-ever section title to either top-seed Rio Vista (7-3) or No. 2 Ripon Christian (6-4). The Knights of Ripon played a tough schedule that included undefeated Orestimba (Div. V) and Div. VI playoff teams Summerville and Gustine. The two former champions in this bracket (Brookeside Christian-Stockton and Stone Ridge Christian-Merced) were beaten handily by either RC or Rio Vista. Both of the top seeds have a junior rusher with over 1,000 yards — Rio Vista’s Rylan Hurley and Michael Kamps of the Knights.

May the best (small) school win.

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