On a dark and stormy night four years ago, UC Davis assistant football coach Jeff Copp knew he was watching a special player.
Amid thunder and rain, Ryan Dimino was passing, running and tackling to lead Del Campo High School to a 16-12 win over then-unbeaten Inderkum in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game at Folsom High School.
Unknown to Copp and the other spectators who braved the elements, the quarterback and linebacker who rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown and passed for 139 yards and a touchdown, played with three broken ribs and a punctured lung.
The injuries - suffered early in the third quarter when a Tiger's helmet was driven into Dimino's right side - weren't diagnosed until early the next morning. Dimino had surgery and spent a couple of days in the hospital.
"I didn't know how serious it was at the time," Dimino said. "My side hurt and I was having trouble breathing, but it was the championship game, and I knew I needed to finish."
Dimino's courage and tenacity sold Copp, and the Aggies felt fortunate to get one of the most decorated players in Sac-Joaquin Section history.
"What a crazy game," said Copp, in his fifth season as an Aggies assistant. "We're out there in the pouring rain, and he did a little bit of everything. We knew we had to have him as part of our team because of the athlete that he was, the football player that he was."
Dimino was selected as The Bee's Player of the Year after rushing for 2,702 yards, passing for 2,089 more, scoring 47 touchdowns and making 60 tackles.
Copp's enthusiasm for Dimino seemed to pay off in the opening game of the 2011 season at Arizona State, Dimino's debut as a redshirt freshman. The 6-foot, 220-pound middle linebacker seemed to be everywhere in the 48-14 loss to the Sun Devils. He led the Aggies with 11 tackles, including 10 solo.
"It was exciting," Dimino said. "I remember going out there and playing in front of a huge crowd. I just tried to do my job."
But injuries limited Dimino to just 15 games, and just one start, the past two seasons. Last year, as a sophomore, he had 10 total tackles all season.
Dimino separated his right shoulder twice in 2011, an injury he said he first suffered as a junior at Del Campo, and eventually had surgery. Then last year he was slowed by a ligament tear in his left knee.
"Being injured doesn't feel good - it's no fun when you can't be out there and help the team," Dimino said. "But I know only one way to play, and that's hard. I give it everything I have."
In the Aggies' opener last Saturday, Dimino made his second career start and played well in a 10-7 loss at South Dakota. He had six tackles, two solo, to help anchor a defense that kept the offense-challenged Aggies in the game.
"It felt great to be out there with the defense, my team, especially early when their crowd was jumpy and really into it," Dimino said. "There were some things to work on. We had too many missed tackles. But everybody gave great effort."
Copp, coaching linebackers this season for the first time, hopes Dimino can stay healthy without sacrificing any of his bravado.
The Aggies' linebacker corps is thin, undersized, inexperienced and dealing with injuries.
"Ryan is one of those physical guys, as are all of our linebackers," Copp said. "They'll throw their bodies around and worry about the physical consequences later. They play like it's their last snap."
Dimino is trying to help fill the void left by graduated linebackers Jordan Glass (Elk Grove) and Byron Gruendl, who combined for 160 tackles, six sacks and five interceptions last season.
Junior Steven Pitts is the team's most experienced linebacker with nine starts. The other linebackers in the rotation, sophomore Jonathan Bias (Pleasant Grove) and freshman Russell Reeder, are getting on-the-job training.
That has thrust Dimino into the role of a defensive leader, a familiar situation for him.
His grandfather, Jim Dimino, is a Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame coach who had championship teams at El Camino. Father Mike was Ryan's coach at Del Campo and likely will join his father in the Hall of Fame one day.
"You can tell Ryan has been playing football for a long time, and that he's been around football with his dad and his grandfather," Copp said. "The kid is a step ahead. He's telling guys what to do all the time on the field. He understands the game."
The Aggies will lean heavily on Dimino tonight when they play on the big stage at Nevada. It's a matchup of a Football Championship Subdivision school against a Football Bowl Subdivision team with a potent read-option offense made famous by the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick.
"When you are a smaller school, you feel you have something to prove," Dimino said. "Last week, we saw some FCS schools upset the FBS schools. So it's fun being the underdogs, and it gets the adrenaline flowing.
"Nevada is a good team, but we're going to get in there and give it all we've got because it's special getting to play in front of a big crowd."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 325-5506.