Their smiles belie the anguish.
Floyd Hillis-Cooper and Dean McGee are captains on their respective football teams that are in the midst of miserable stretches of futility. For all their efforts at Kennedy and Valley – the yards, the tackles, the energy, the leadership – the rewards have been minimal. But the seniors soldier on, both explaining that one can gain more from competition than just victories.
Still, these two crave a victory. Badly.
Kennedy is desperate to break a 26-game losing streak. Valley has lost 47 of 49 games on the field dating to 2008. The teams meet Friday night in Greenhaven. It's homecoming for Kennedy, but it's much more than that.
"It's our Super Bowl," Valley coach Dave Filan said, grinning. "We both need this game."
Watch Floyd run
One wouldn't gather by Hillis-Cooper's good cheer that he's never won a football game. In his life.
He slipped on shoulder pads for the first time last season at Kennedy, and he's proven to be a quick learner. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound tailback is third in the Sac-Joaquin Section in rushing with 936 yards. He has nine rushing scores and 11 total as a one-man gang if there ever was one.
"Here, it's 'Watch Floyd run!' " Kennedy offensive coordinator Joe Spatafore said. "He's the most selfless player I've coached in 20 years. TCU coach Gary Patterson called recently and asked, 'Who the heck is No. 4?' Well, he's the best kid no one knows about."
Second-year Kennedy coach Matt Costa said Hillis-Cooper has accelerated the team's progress. The Cougars were shut out four times to close the 2012 season. Kennedy is much more competitive this season, having scored 14 or more points in each game. The junior varsity program is also competitive, off to a 2-0 start in the Metropolitan Conference.
A $16 million bond will soon result in new field turf and a new track, so optimism abounds on a campus better known for academics.
"It'd be great to win, yes. But as long as it's fun, and we play 100 percent, I can deal with the results," Hillis-Cooper said. "We're trying to change the culture of football here. It's a great school. People can say we can't change in football, but we will. It's already changing."
Hillis-Cooper said he "matured a lot" as a student and athlete. He gave football a try "because I wanted to try something new, to get the most out of high school."
His father, Floyd, works in a cancer research lab in Sacramento, and his mother, Latoya, lives in St. Louis, and both support his football pursuits. Hillis-Cooper said he's hooked and wants to play in college. He carries a 3.0 grade-point average and enjoys his trigonometry class.
Costa marveled at his star player before a spirited practice.
"He's the best all-around player I've coached," said Costa, in his 11th year as a prep coach. "He needs football, and we need him. He has no off gear. I'm impressed with how he carries himself. He's the reason we get up and come to work every day."
As for campus perception that Kennedy can't compete, Hillis-Cooper simply replied, "I just smile and ask them why they're not out there supporting us or playing?"
McGee hobbles around Valley's south Sacramento campus, crutches in tow, as an image of a once-powerful program that has gone sour.
Valley's hybrid star – he plays numerous positions – rolled his ankle during the Vikings' homecoming game Friday night at Cosumnes River College. With Rosemont ahead 46-0 midway through the third quarter, the game was halted after a fight broke out in the concession stand area with fears of it spilling onto the field or into the parking lot.
"That was more frustrating than my injury, because it had nothing to do with our players or the game," McGee said.
McGee attended the homecoming dance, crutches and all, explaining Monday, "I wasn't going to miss that. High school is about memories and experiences."
At 5-11 and 180 pounds, McGee has scored six touchdowns as a running back and receiver. He has played outside linebacker and safety, and he's on special teams. He's the gunner on kickoffs.
"I told him to stay in shape because we're going to need him for every down," said Filan, the fourth-year Valley coach. "He's an amazing kid. This is why we coach. Great grades, great character, never complains."
McGee is a 4.5 student and smiles shyly in sharing what classes he's acing: Advanced Placement physics, calculus, literature and government. McGee, who also plays tennis, track and volleyball, wants to study engineering in college.
"I'm doing all I can," said McGee, whose father, also named Dean, works at UC Davis and mother, Sheila, is a nurse. "No regrets."
Filan said he has no regrets, either. His last two wins came against Kennedy – last season and in 2011 when the Cougars had to forfeit as punishment handed down by the Sacramento City Unified School District for their part in a brawl during a game against McClatchy.
Despite the losses, Filan said Valley can recover.
"I want to see us competitive again, and we're getting there, and the JV team is competitive," Filan said. "I do feel for the players. I admire them as much as I feel for them, because they keep coming back with good spirits. They keep my spirits up."
He then looked at McGee. The scar that snakes down the back of his right arm is from a season-ending broken arm suffered in Week 1 last year.
More pain than gain?
"It's worth it because it's still memories and playing with teammates," McGee said.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD, check out his PrepsPlus Insider every Monday at blogs.sacbee.com/preps and listen to his "Extra Point" every Wednesday on ESPN Radio 1320.