Things weren't clicking for the Golden Sierra High School football team during nonleague play.
The Grizzlies started 1-3, albeit against bigger schools.
"But we knew we weren't playing like we should," said second-year coach John Hilton. "Part of it was that we hadn't come together as a group."
That might seem strange for a team with only 21 players at one of the smallest public schools in the Sac-Joaquin Section with 563 students.
But the Garden Valley school draws from far-flung foothill communities across the Georgetown Divide in El Dorado County, and most of the players were in their first foray on the varsity.
So Hilton, who teaches and coaches baseball at Placer High School, decided to try something different, especially with a bye week before the start of Sierra Delta League play.
"We needed a new way of thinking," Hilton said.
Hilton began matching seniors with juniors for getting-to-know-you daily lunch sessions. He'd stop practices, call up a couple of players front and center and ask others to talk about them.
"We started to see enthusiasm," Hilton said. "Before, someone would score a touchdown, and no one really got excited. Now we had 21 kids coming together. That little wall of uncertainty dropped."
Golden Sierra has since won four games, all in league, including beating two-time defending league champion Bradshaw Christian 28-14 and two-time Sac-Joaquin Section Division V runner-up Highlands 16-14.
Entering tonight's league game against Encina (4-4, 1-3) at El Camino High School, Hilton says the Grizzlies (5-3, 4-0) could become the first football team in the school's 33-year history to go undefeated in league play.
They're doing it with nine two-way players and no college prospects.
"These kids are pretty gutsy," said Hilton, who coaches one of the nation's top football recruits, defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, in baseball at Placer.
Quarterback-safety Bryson Campbell, running back-linebacker Adam Sewell and linemen Kyle Moe and Ryan Echeveria provide the senior leadership.
Wide receiver-defensive back Cameron Stephens, wide receiver-linebacker Brian Cann and Daniel Lesher are among the junior leaders.
Lesher played quarterback on the junior varsity last year but became the varsity's starting fullback and linebacker when senior Thai Cotton suffered season-ending injuries in an auto accident just before the start of fall practice.
"Everyone contributes on this team," Hilton said. "All our players know how to play multiple positions."
Hilton deserve kudos for extra duties, too.
After teaching at Placer, he drives the windy roads to Garden Valley in the afternoons for football practice, then takes the arduous 50-minute drive home to Lincoln at night.
"The hike in gas prices has been the hardest part," Hilton said. "It's tough on Friday nights, especially the road games. We don't get back to school until 12:30 or 1 a.m.
" But the drive home these last four weeks has been very nice."