As stadium lights are turned on across the region Friday night, there is little debate the popularity of area football continues to escalate.
The area is producing some of the nation's top recruits, more games are televised and social media have increased the awareness even more.
With a quasi-state championship playoff in place with the CIF State Bowl games (which expands to Northern and Southern state regional playoffs this year), area teams have raised their profiles and shown their mettle on the state's biggest stage.
Grant and Folsom have won CIF state titles, and Rocklin and Del Oro also have played in bowl games.
"This area is on its way to being one of the tops in the nation for high school football," said Rio Linda football coach Mike Morris, in his 22nd season. "The level of coaching is on par with anywhere. And more and more (NCAA Division I) kids are coming from our area."
But high school football in the region is confronted by more challenges than rewards tests that are already eating away at the sport's foundation.
The expanding impact of continued athletic budget cutbacks by school districts.
Declining participation and constant coaching turnover at schools where football is already on life support.
Growing concern about concussions and that young bodies are being pushed to the brink of exhaustion because of increased offseason participation, more practices and expanded schedules.
"It would be hard to imagine that there wouldn't be high school sports, especially football," said Pete Saco, commissioner of the CIF's Sac-Joaquin Section, which oversees nearly 200 high school sports programs, second largest in the state. "So far we haven't had anyone drop football. But as budgets get tighter and tighter, school districts are going to have to make some tough decisions.
"Down the road, it's not out of the realm of possibility that there might not be high school football at some schools."
Here's a closer look at some of the challenges area schools face:
Where's the beef?
The Elk Grove Unified School District dropped all its freshman sports programs, including football, in 2010, and many area schools are supplementing their athletic budgets with a voluntary athletic contribution program in which parents pay a set amount depending on the number of sports their children play.
Booster club support, through bingo, dinners and other fundraisers, has become the lifeblood for many programs.
But not every school or team can do that.
"A lot of our kids can't afford to pay to play, plus I don't believe in that," said San Juan football coach Russ Hibbard. "There's a misconception that our school district supports our program financially. Most of it we have to fundraise. We've been fortunate in that the businesses around our school have been generous."
Unlike Fort Worth, Texas, where high school football coaches earn an average of $88,000 a year, most area head coaches receive a stipend of between $3,000 and $5,000, with assistants, most of whom are off-campus coaches, receiving less, if anything.
And even that's shrinking.
Some Sacramento City Unified School District coaches are earning less than last year because of a 20 percent cut in the athletic budget.
Stipends for coaches in the San Juan Unified School District have been reduced by 50 percent. They'll only return to their full amount if a statewide school-funding ballot initiative passes in November.
"Right now our coaches are staying the course," said Mesa Verde football coach and athletic director Ron Barney. "But I'm not sure if they are going to want to continue to coach in our district if those cuts become permanent."
For all the perennial superlative programs Del Oro, Elk Grove, Folsom, Granite Bay, Grant, Nevada Union and Pleasant Grove the region also has programs that greatly suffer.
Success has been rare at Encina, Florin, Hiram Johnson, Kennedy, McClatchy, Mira Loma, Natomas, Valley and West Campus among others.
These programs have been plagued by lack of community support, small rosters and coaching turnover.
Encina and West Campus had 14 or fewer players for games last season.
With open enrollment and a new, more liberal CIF transfer policy in which students only have to sit out 30 days if they transfer without changing residence, coaches and administrators fear that it's almost becoming impossible for have-not programs to reverse course.
San Juan's Hibbard has one of those challenged programs.
The Spartans have suffered seven losing seasons in the last eight, including last season's 0-10 finish when Hibbard had to combine the varsity and junior varsity teams at midseason because of a declining number of players.
But he says things are looking up. A campus-wide remodel is almost complete, there is a more attractive vocational curriculum and a big freshman class of 235 students as the school celebrates its 100th anniversary.
"You drop football and your school is dead, sports-wise," Hibbard said. "Kids want to see football. It's central to a school's existence."
Should schools start to drop football, some fear it could become a parent-driven club sport. It's a thought that makes coaches and administrators cringe.
"High school sports is the last pure thing in America," said Rick Arcuri, the athletic director and an assistant football coach at Monterey Trail. "We see free agency in the NFL, and now we even see it at the youth level. Sports, football in particular, allows students to connect with their school, it gives you that vibe."
The arms race
Few educators would argue that the most time-demanding job on a high school campus is being head football coach.
It's usually a full-time job that includes teaching a full class load during the day. There is also little downtime through the year because of spring ball, summer camps and passing tournaments.
With the demands of trying to teach, coach, organize fundraisers and win, it's led to increased coaching turnover. Twenty-five percent of area head coaches this season are new, including several who are off-campus coaches.
Rio Linda's Morris calls it the "arms race."
"Why anyone would want to be a head football coach these days is beyond me," Morris said. "The first week of football practice also was the first week of school for me. I worked all seven days and put in about 73 hours.
"If you are a young guy starting out, I see why they last only a year or two and get out."
Pleasant Grove coach Joe Cattolico's teams have won four league titles, a section banner and made three section championship appearances.
Throw in a full-time on-campus teaching job, two young sons and a wife, Natasha, who teaches at Monterey Trail, and Cattolico can tell you about the sacrifices made by the families of coaches.
"The challenge today for a lot of us is how to juggle teaching, family responsibilities and coaching," said Cattolico. "It's a tough balancing act, and football can be a little unforgiving as far as your family is concerned."
Cattolico offers a thoroughly contrarian idea that flies in the face of all the success he has enjoyed since becoming Pleasant Grove's coach when the school opened in Elk Grove in 2005.
He'd like to see a 10-game regular season with just one playoff game such as the Delta River League champion play the Delta Valley Conference winner and then call it a season.
"I think the season is too long," said Cattolico, who does not conduct spring football or a summer contact camp. "The last four years, we've played 13 to 14 games, and now if you make it to the state bowl, it's 16 games. That's an NFL schedule.
"It's too hard on kids' bodies, and it turns the sport into a war of attrition."