Matt Ray had to think for a moment on this one.
Who is the football rival for Antelope High School? Ray, the Titans’ coach, was at a loss.
“Probably Whitney, I think,” Ray said in discussing whether rivalry games still matter. “The Whitney game has decided our league championship the past few years, so we’ll go with Whitney.”
It used to be the rivalry opponent easily rolled off the tongue of a coach – and off the mouthpiece of a player – the game circled and underlined on the schedule, the “must-have” opponent. This still rings true for some area programs such as McClatchy and Sacramento, who have competed in the Bell Game since the 1930s, or Jesuit and Christian Brothers, who have faced off in the Holy Bowl since 1969, or Del Oro and Granite Bay in Placer County the past 15 seasons, often with the Sierra Foothill League championship at stake.
But the growth of schools, coupled with a drop in competitive balance for some, has changed the landscape of the rivalry showdown. The Sacramento region added 18 schools in the past 20 years, and realignment has shifted programs, dulling a good many old rivalries, or killing them off completely. Even though regional games are generally well attended, the top-ranked programs scramble to identify rivals as the playoffs have increasingly become the focus.
Does No. 1 Folsom have a true football rival? It’s not much of a rivalry when the Bulldogs mow everyone under as they have in recent seasons. How about No. 2 Grant? It used to be Nevada Union for years, but the teams no longer meet. How about No. 4 Elk Grove? Another head scratcher.
“Our rival? I have no idea,” Elk Grove coach Chris Nixon said. “I’m not sure it really matters anymore. The playoffs blow up the whole concept of ‘one rival’ anyway. We find the playoffs have a lot of great matchups that can be far more special than any one regular-season game. You don’t get to be a part of that just for beating your rival, whoever that is.”
Inderkum coach Terry Stark agreed the rivalry game is largely a lost art, and because he’s old-school, that bothers him. He recalled his youth in the San Juan Unified School District in the early 1970s. Back then, he quarterbacked ranked Mira Loma in 1977 when rivalry showdowns were many, including 10,000 packing in to watch El Camino and Mira Loma compete for league championships, the winners tossing the coaches into the swimming pool.
Now that district seems to have few noticeable rivalries. The most spirited one that decided a league championship for the better part of 12 years was Casa Roble and Del Campo. That series ended after yet another meeting was marred by player fighting last October. Davis and Woodland were natural Yolo County rivals for decades before bad blood stalled that series.
“It’s not the same as when I was a kid, and it’s a shame,” Stark said, adding he’s not even sure who Inderkum’s rival is. “It used to be in the 1970s and ’80s, only the league champion made the playoffs, and that made the rivalry games so important because a lot of times that rivalry game decided the league champion. The worst thing about high school football now is it’s turned into basketball where everyone seems to make the playoffs. I’d love to go back to where it was.”
Ray, the Antelope coach, said rivalries exist for small schools in football-mad towns in the southern part of the Sac-Joaquin Section and in the Northern Section, including where he grew up (Quincy) and the foothills for Colfax-Placer and Colfax-Bear River.
“For me, it was Quincy against Portola, a logging town against a railroad town, but we always called them ‘Por-Toilet’ because that’s what you do in a rivalry,” Ray said with a laugh. “It’s not the same here. The other thing I see in this area is dads shopping their kid, looking for the best football situation. You don’t need to look to join the best; you become the best at your home school. That’s lost in some areas around here, and that kills rivalries.”
Oak Ridge in El Dorado Hills and Ponderosa in Shingle Springs were natural rivals when Oak Ridge opened in 1980. The schools stopped their rivalry after last season, with Ponderosa athletic administrators deeming the series too lopsided in Oak Ridge’s favor. The Ponderosa-El Dorado Gold Pan game that started in 1963 ended after the 2011 meeting; Ponderosa won the final 11 times and 18 of 19. Ponderosa’s enrollment dwarfs that of the Cougars of Placerville. El Dorado now sees similar-sized Union Mine as the rival, with the teams competing in the Gold Nugget game.
“It’s crazy how the growth has taken over and changed things for a lot of areas,” Ponderosa athletic director Tyson Escobar said. “Rivalry changes as growth happens. For us, the Gold Pan game wasn’t competitive, and when that happens, it’s not fun. Same with Oak Ridge. The sentiment for all coaches is to just get into the playoffs.”
Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere said he was disappointed to lose the Ponderosa contact, a break in tradition.
“It’s too bad because it was a big game and it means a lot,” Cavaliere said, adding that being realigned to the SFL with Del Oro, Rocklin, Granite Bay, Woodcreek, Nevada Union and Folsom makes every week a “special week.”
“These days, it seems like every game is a rivalry game,” Cavaliere said. “The SFL brings that kind of atmosphere.”
On Friday, No. 7 Del Oro visits No. 3 Rocklin, a rivalry that remains spirited partly because scores of players on both sides grew up competing against each other in various sports.
“It’s always exciting because of the history of the matchup, making it a must win,” Rocklin receiver Blake Laurin said.
Woodland coach Bert Salinas said the Woodland-Pioneer rivalry has heated up in a good way, replacing the Woodland-Davis series. The fact Pioneer is located in Woodland adds to the tension, the coach said.
“The Pioneer game for us is the big game for this community,” Salinas said. “The game sells out before that Friday and it’s like a playoff atmosphere, no matter the records, and the games have decided who goes to the playoffs and crosstown pride. It reminds me of the old Oakmont-Roseville games when I grew up. The games still matter.”
Realignment has brought Oakmont and Roseville back together in the Capital Valley Conference and created a renewed sense of importance.
“Rivalries are still important,” Roseville coach Larry Cunha said. “The rivalry game is a step toward the greater goal of the playoffs and the bowl games.”
In Elk Grove, running back Spencer Sheff pondered the rivalry question. He came up with a team.
“Our rival has to be Franklin, because it’s been a good game, and we just hate them,” he said. “OK, we don’t hate the players. It’s not that bad. We hate to lose to them. That’s what a rivalry is.”