It was almost time to leave Thursday, as signaled by the two buses crouched outside Granite Bay High School in the pre-dawn chill. The Grizzlies football players, tousled but their eyes alert, grouped nearby shouldering bulky bags. Some held pillows, too, for the long ride to Carson, where tonight they will play for a state championship.
But coach Ernie Cooper did not yet want to take his players away from the families and fellow students who had awoken early to see them off. Not from the music blaring out of an open sport-utility vehicle in the parking lot or the cheers, smiles and "Let's Go Boys!" signs blending in the cold air.
"Offense, you're putting your bags under the first bus," Cooper, wearing a close-cropped goatee and baseball cap, said in a voice that got more gravelly with volume. "Defense, put your bags under the second bus. Then come back and party."
Across the Sacramento area, high school football celebrations were done, save for in this parking lot, with Granite Bay the lone area team headed to the CIF State Bowl games this weekend. The Grizzlies will play storied Long Beach Poly tonight in the Division I game.
"We are very, very excited," said William Graber, the father of Grizzlies tight end Steven Graber, as he bustled about taking pictures with his phone and wishing Cooper luck. "It's a group of kids who have been together for a long time, and now they've finally reached that last level, that last part of the equation."
The same could be said for the school. Since opening in 1996, Granite Bay has had a run of football success including five section titles from its cozy Placer County locale, and it now will make its first state bowl appearance.
The Grizzlies are the fifth area team in as many years to play in a state bowl, which many say has helped show off the strength of football in a region long obscured by Bay Area powers to the west and the populous talent hotbeds in Southern California.
Grant, the area's first bowl team, defeated nationally ranked Long Beach Poly in the State Open Bowl in 2008. The message sent, Sac-Joaquin Section Commissioner Pete Saco said, "was that year in and year out, it may not be Grant, but Sacramento's going to have good football."
Rocklin, Folsom and Del Oro have played in the last three Division II bowls, all at the roomy Home Depot Center in front of Southern California home crowds, with Folsom the lone winner of the three. Granite Bay is the third team from the Sierra Foothill League in four years to reach a state bowl.
"We beat each other up," Rocklin coach Greg Benzel said. "I guess that's the best way to put it."
The bowl system, introduced in 2006, has coincided with increased coverage of high school football on national TV broadcasts and online. And, Cal-Hi Sports editor Mark Tennis said, it has come with the emergence of some particularly strong area teams led by sharp, innovative coaches.
"Outside of Cordova being great for seven, eight years in a row (in the 1970s), you'd have one here, one there," said Tennis, also citing Elk Grove in the late 1990s. "But certainly in the last five years, Grant's historic victory in 2008 was followed up by some very solid performances," both in the post- and regular season.
"Unless Granite Bay gets blown out of the water," Tennis said, "and I don't think they will, it's just going to continue on."
Granite Bay rolled over St. Ignatius of San Francisco last week in the first Northern California Regional Division I game for its 11th consecutive win to advance to the state bowl. Cooper said the Grizzlies had a sense even then of "carrying the torch for our section."
"I think this week is more of the same," Cooper said. "We want to show that we can play with the guys down south."
Especially, Cooper said, after starting the season with consecutive losses to Westlake and Oaks Christian, two Southern California teams.
"We didn't play our best games in either one," Cooper said. "So I'm sure the impression down there is, how did Granite Bay get in this game? Two teams kicked their butt from down south. But I think we're a little better team right now."
Thom Simmons, a CIF Southern Section spokesman, said teams in Southern California don't look down on Sacramento-area football.
"I don't think that was ever the case," Simmons said. "I think Sacramento for a long time has been some of the top-end football."
Regardless, Rocklin's Benzel, Del Oro coach Casey Taylor and Grant athletic director Reggie Harris said they'll be rooting for the Grizzlies tonight.
"Whether they win or lose," Harris said, "they're going to be one of those anchor programs in the Sacramento area.
"And it's a great opportunity for (Cooper's) student-athletes to gain an experience. They'll be talking about it to their grandchildren. That experience is going to be humbling and something they'll cherish for the rest of their lives."
Should any of them have been too tired to remember the early-morning send-off, they'll probably have access to video, judging by the number of phones that came up with the sun as Cooper beckoned the Grizzlies toward their buses. They pulled away around 7 a.m., behind a fire engine with a Grinch doll strapped to its front grill.
Before boarding, Cooper walked around the parking lot greeting players and their parents while holding several sheets of paper, including one with the clear and confident print of his 6-year-old daughter, he said. He held it so the words faced outward.
"Beat the Jack Rabbits," it said, next to a scrawled picture of a football. "Go Grizzlies."