Mike Morris is in his 22nd season of coaching football at Rio Linda High School.
He's had championship teams and struggling teams, but he's never had a squad that has matured so quickly.
Despite returning only three starters on offense and three on defense, and with many key contributors being sophomores or juniors, the No. 19 Knights are 7-1 entering Friday's Capital Valley Conference home game against Oakmont.
Morris says but for a few plays here and there, the Knights could be either 8-0 or 4-4.
Rio Linda beat No. 20 Antelope 15-14, Roseville 24-20, Ponderosa 15-13, Christian Brothers 33-27 and lost by two points to No. 15 Center.
Against Center, Rio Linda mishandled a punt snap for a safety that gave the Cougars' a 16-14 fourth-quarter lead, then saw the clock expire before the Knights had a chance to kick a possible game-winning field goal after driving to Center's 8-yard line.
"We had some miscommunication, and the clock ran out on us," Morris said. "But what impressed me is that we were in the exact same position the next week against Ponderosa, and we got it done."
Junior offensive guard Danny Perez kicked the game-winning 35-yard field goal only seconds after learning the game's outcome rested on his foot.
Jonathan Tafoya, Rio Linda's regular kicker, saw his leg tighten up during the contest, the result of an injury he suffered playing soccer, so Morris went with his backup.
"He had no idea," Morris said of Perez.
Among the other heroes for the Knights this season are senior right tackle Mitchell Gums, a force at 6-foot and 335 pounds; fast and physical sophomore running back Marcel Brown (1,097 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns), who has a scholarship offer from Nevada; senior defensive linemen Riley Smith and Michael Shane, and junior Vaughn Hingano (a combined 18 sacks); junior defensive back Keenan Hunt (five interceptions, two fumble recoveries); and junior fullback-linebacker Leo Skattebo (487 rushing yards, four touchdowns and a team-leading 74 tackles).
This is Skattebo's first full season of football after breaking his leg midway through his freshman season and missing his entire sophomore year with a broken clavicle.
"Leo's a beast," Morris said. "He's 5-10, 245 pounds and one of the strongest guys on the team. He's extremely athletic, and he has the drive. He wants to be great."
In remembrance The memory of popular former teammate Christian Daniels, who died July 28 in a motorcycle accident, still drives the players at No. 13 Whitney. The Wildcats are 7-1 and 3-0 in the Capital Athletic League.
"Christian's name comes up a lot, especially among the seniors who were his teammates last season," said Whitney coach Mike Gimenez. "And that's a great way to remember him. He was a great kid, with a big smile, great spirit who always made the people around him better."
Daniels, 18, died shortly after graduating from Whitney. He was the prototypical overachiever at 5-9 and 160 pounds, nicknamed "Little Bear" by his family because of his small stature but toughness and speed as a wide receiver and kick specialist.
Nearly 1,000 people attended a candlelight vigil for Daniels in Whitney's football stadium.
"The players wear a sticker on the back of their helmets in his memory," Gimenez said. "We've started a memorial scholarship fund in his name that will earn one of our football players some money to go to college."
Still in the running Rio Americano kept alive its playoff hopes Saturday by beating visiting Mira Loma 80-34 in a Capital Athletic League game.
Mark Lyon passed for 253 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for two more; Guillermo Salazar had six catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns, and he returned an interception 87 yards for another touchdown; and Darrin Nishi and Jordan Vinson combined to rush for 210 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Raiders, now 4-4 overall and 2-1 in league.