Joe Volek first noticed the sagging flagpole in the parking lot and the weeds invading the football field.
Neither cast much of an inspiring sight upon his initial visit nine years ago to El Dorado High School in historic Placerville. Volek didn't flinch as much as he nodded and rolled up his sleeves, nearly to his neck, in embracing a project. He was hired as athletic director, but somewhere in that contract there might as well have been a "miracle worker" clause.
Volek was paramount in ushering in a new field and all-weather track, applied like so much polish on a campus that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009.
He assumed the football coaching post before last season, taking on another tall task that has resulted in the Cougars' continued rise from obscurity.
First, the image had to change.
"The flagpole was the official one used in the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics, and it was leaning in the lot," Volek recalled, eyeing the structure. "I knew we had to move it in here, next to the field. Too much history not to have it here to be appreciated."
And the weeds?
"There were more weeds than grass, and the district told us, 'You can't get rid of it,' " Volek said. "We had 40 players sweep back and forth, pulling weeds, every day. It just shows you can do what you want. You just have to put in the time."
That motto continues to serve Volek and the Cougars. The new turf, installed four years ago, is illuminated by charming old lights emblematic of the town itself. The lights were used for the bobsled races in the Squaw Valley Olympics. And out of the shadows have come the new-look Cougars. At 3-1, El Dorado has matched last season's win total, and for a program for years mired anywhere between misery and mediocrity, this is certainly a welcome change.
The Cougars last enjoyed a winning season in 1998 at 6-4, and they last reached the postseason in 1987.
Several factors resulted in El Dorado's decline in football since the program's lone Sac-Joaquin Section championship season in 1983. The population boom up the Highway 50 corridor that started in the late 1970s and seemingly never really stopped prompted the opening of schools just outside Placerville. Golden Sierra in Garden Valley opened in 1977. Oak Ridge in nearby El Dorado Hills opened in 1980. Union Mine in El Dorado opened in 1999. All of those teams have had championship success, as has Ponderosa in Shingle Springs.
Terry Cox, who transformed Golden Sierra from a losing program to a small-school power in the 1990s, joined Volek this season. Cox's son, Travis, who played for his father, is the Cougars' defensive coordinator.
"First thing that you have to do is instill work ethic and a belief that you can succeed, and it's happening now, here," Terry Cox said.
Cougars assistant coach Marty Sherin served as El Dorado's head coach and athletic director in 1993 and '94. His highlight amid two trying seasons was getting married to Liz in '93 on the football field.
Sherin returned to assist Volek this season along with Liz, who is the team's stat keeper.
"I'm so glad to be back and to see what's happening here," Sherin said. "It's amazing what Volek has done. Everything has changed. It's been a long time coming."
'Big Cat' influence
Volek looks and sounds like a coach barrel-chested, booming voice. He said he was born to do this.
"I think you get to a point in life when you realize God made you to do certain things, and I'm a football coach," said Volek, who played quarterback at Montana State in the early 1990s. "My father (John) was a football coach. It's in our family blood. It's the way we're designed. And I learned from the best in 'Big Cat.' "
"Big Cat" would be the nickname of his father, John Volek, the former Sacramento State coach and retired Sierra College athletic director.
And son is a near spitting image of his pops. They have the same facial expressions, same laugh, and coach with both an iron fist and bear-hugging charm. The Volek football tradition continues.
Joe's son, Chris, is catching touchdown passes on El Dorado's junior varsity team. John Volek and his wife, Vicki, regularly attend games, decked in Cougars blue and sometimes wearing headsets in the booth.
"I know Joe's worked his tail off to get things going, and it's going," John Volek said.
Joe Volek patrols the grounds, scooping up litter, instructing students to clear the football field for a soccer game, ordering up cones for football practice nearby. He beams that all the Cougars' fall sports teams have a combined 3.17 grade-point average.
"I'm a product of involvement," Volek said. "Football is an extension of education. If you're engaged, if you're in drama, arts, music, sports, you will be successful. So it is personal for me here. And I love it. I get to do this every day. I told the team the other day, 'Fellas, you inspire me to do well.' "
It's a mutual message. The players credit Volek for the team's resurgence.
El Dorado is averaging 51.3 points a game, losing only to 4-0 Tokay of Lodi. The Cougars average 416.5 rushing yards. Volek jokes that his father insists, "Just run the ball, son!"
Senior running backs Logan Kirby (647 yards, six touchdowns) and Derek Delfino (384, six touchdowns) work behind a physical line that includes 320-pound tackle Austin Danker. And they have enjoyed a bit of celebrity status on campus and about town. Junior class president Shalinn Prettyman said it's important to acknowledge the football efforts through words, attending games or hanging posters.
"We need to empower everyone," she said. "The football success is big here. It's still a small town, and the sense of community is there."
The Delfino name resonates in the Gold Country. Delfino's mother, Robyn, owns Apple Blossom Coffee House in nearby Camino. And Delfino's father, Chris, is a farmer who helps manage the popular Kids Inc., a family-run operation for 50 years at Apple Hill. Chris Delfino, who played for El Dorado in the late 1970s, is the Cougars' public address announcer.
"Oh, we talk El Dorado football history, how important a good team is and how fun it can be," said Derek Delfino, who wants to study business agriculture in college, "so I can help run the farm someday."
Delfino and Kirby get a kick out of being recognized at a local shop or eatery.
"People will smile and ask, 'Are you with the football team? Keep up the good work,' " Delfino said. "That feels great. We've had some tough times up here, so this feels better."
"I think you get to a point in life when you realize God made you to do certain things, and I'm a football coach. My father (John) was a football coach. It's in our family blood. It's the way we're designed."
JOE VOLEK, El Dorado High School football coach Follow The Bee's Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD and on Preps Plus Insiders on www.sacbee.com/preps.