Friday Night Lights isn’t going to happen at Rio Americano High anytime soon. The residents of the Arden-Arcade area just aren’t going to allow lights to shine down on the football field and upset the peace and quiet of the tony suburban neighborhood.
That decades-long and entrenched opposition forced the Raiders’ program to hold games on Saturday afternoons. Gate receipts, which help fund all sports, were dismal. Morale suffered along with the football teams. The varsity squad hasn’t had a winning season in more than a decade.
So three years ago, the Raiders’ administration, along with varsity head coach Michael Willis, moved the school’s homes games to Friday night and seven miles north to Carmichael’s Del Campo High. That’s where the Raiders were drubbed 37-0 by their rivals from El Camino High Friday night in an important Capital Athletic League game.
Both Rio Americano and Del Campo are part of the sprawling San Juan Unified School District – the region’s largest district in terms of square miles covered – so Rio Americano doesn’t pay Del Campo anything to use the Cougars’ stadium.
“We knew that we needed to get into a stadium with lights so we could play on Friday nights,” said Rio Americano Athletic Director Jennifer Smiley. “Del Campo graciously allows us to use their stadium and since we made the switch to Fridays school morale and our crowds have really increased.”
Rio Americano High Principal Brian Ginter said a typical Saturday afternoon home game would maybe sell $1,000 in tickets. Now, an average game at Del Campo can net the Raiders’ athletic department $6,500 or more.
Friday was homecoming for Rio Americano, which is weird since the fans, students and student-athletes technically are not at home. They had the usual homecoming king and queen crowning but no class floats pulled by pickups because Del Campo doesn’t allow vehicles on its rubberized track. “And we’d have about 25 percent of the crowd we have tonight,” said Ginter, while looking out into a standing-room only crowd on the home half of the field at Del Campo.
The actual field situation at Rio Americano is an issue, too. Because the Raiders no longer play at home, upkeep on the field has suffered. There’s also no need to invest in a $1 million or more sports turf field like the one at Del Campo, or the new field at El Camino. Rio Americano freshmen home games start at 3:15 p.m., Ginter said, so the game ends before the last ray of sunshine fades to black. Ginter recalled a 1 p.m. home game at Rio against Jesuit five years ago that saw temperatures soar above 100 degrees. People were passing out in the stands from the heat, he said.
El Camino knows what it’s like to play on a shoddy field. Before the school got turf and a facelift, the natural grass field at the school used to turn into a quagmire by late October from overuse. El Camino, Mira Loma and Encina all held home games there. Now, with turf, the stadium is beautiful.
“We couldn’t even practice on our own field,” Eagles varsity head coach Adam Reinking said of the logistical nightmares before his school got the all-weather turf. “And with multiple sports all trying to use the same patch of dirt it was a mess. At least Rio can practice on their own field.”
Ginter has been the principal at Rio Americano for eight years, he said. When he first took over a small but vocal and well-organized neighborhood group sued the district and forced a $250,000 environmental impact report that required the district to install sound baffles behind each stadium speaker to dampen the noise. That same group, he said, will never be in favor of lights.
“They were there before the school was even built (in 1963),” Ginter said. “They have a lot of money but their numbers are dwindling.”
Smiley said there’s always a chance for lights and a new field to be installed. She said she’s confident that if the neighbors could see the positive impact that installing a turf field and lights could have on the school and the student-athletes then they’ll be in favor of an upgrade.
“We moved to create that ‘Friday Night Lights’ atmosphere and, quite frankly, our facilities aren’t up to par,” said Willis, the Raiders’ head coach, who played for Rio before graduating in 2008. “But the goal is to get home.”
Mark Billingsley is a Carmichael-based freelance writer: email@example.com, @editorwriter001