Joe Volek was awash in the glow of victory, his football team belting out the school fight song Friday night.
Then the El Dorado High School coach called a postgame audible: “Get to the Bell Tower, on the double.”
There, the Cougars let the old bell have it, the clangs reverberating through the streets of downtown Placerville. There was plenty to celebrate. For just the second time since 1990, El Dorado beat Ponderosa, 30-28, in a Gold Pan series that dates to 1963. Hank Hasemeier sealed the win by blocking a 38-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
“The bell used to ring for fires here, but now we ring it for touchdowns after victories,” said Volek, his team 3-0. “We woke up the whole town with this one. This is great rivalry stuff, and those traditions are alive and well here, and at Del Oro and other places.”
Few other places, unfortunately. The rivalry game used to define a high school season, underlined on the schedule as the “must-win” game.
It’s still true in some parts of the region, including the Quarry Bowl in Placer County between Whitney and Rocklin that started seven years ago, and the Holy Bowl between Christian Brothers and Jesuit, a series dating to 1969. Those games were held last week in front of large crowds that included good sportsmanship before, during and after competition.
El Dorado went through some dark days. We couldn’t compete with Ponderosa. I got rid of the series and people were upset with me, but we had to get our program on our feet, get the kids in the weight room, get them stronger.
Joe Volek, El Dorado football coach
But the widening competitive gap around the region has sacked most neighborhood rivalries.
“In the old days, and forever, the rivalry game was Week 10, the big game, and everyone would come out,” Franklin coach Mike Johnson said. “But this area has gotten so big in high school football in every way, and the season is so long with the state playoffs that it’s different now.
“Now there’s a different strategy. Some teams are just looking to survive 10 weeks. Some are looking to win six games, which generally gets you into the playoffs. The big power programs – Folsom, Del Oro, Grant, Elk Grove – aren’t looking for six wins. They’re looking for ways to get to the NorCal and state finals and they put together a portfolio of games to do so, so it takes away from any rivalry for some.
“There are two schools of thought. For us, Elk Grove is our rivalry game, and we look to beat them just to get into the playoffs. They look to beat us on their way to winning a section title.”
Folsom has become too good for its own good. The Bulldogs have been ranked No. 1 by The Sacramento Bee since the start of the 2012 season and own a state-leading 48-game regular-season winning streak. Folsom has no rival, though games are generally sellouts, home and away.
A natural rivalry never materialized between Folsom and nearby Vista del Lago, which shares the Bulldogs’ home field. Because Folsom is Division I and Vista del Lago is Division III, Folsom coach Kris Richardson said it presents a “no-win situation” for the Bulldogs, expected to win by an avalanche.
Second-ranked Del Oro is preparing for rivalry games against Granite Bay and Rocklin. No. 3 Elk Grove is gearing up for Grant, Franklin and the rest of the Delta League, where natural rivalries seem ripe to take off with the proximity of Elk Grove, Franklin, Monterey Trail and Sheldon.
But sometimes proximity presents problems. A natural rivalry would appear to be Franklin and nearby Cosumnes Oaks, both located just off Whitelock Parkway in Elk Grove. The schools share a stadium but stopped the nonleague series following the 2013 season.
“The schools are so close in location that apprehension of what happens off the field between students is the concern, a lot of animosity, and it’s an administrative nightmare,” said Johnson, the Franklin coach. “But there’s still a rivalry. Through social media, the students from both schools were going back and forth – who has the better rooting section? For our last game (against Valley), we had the best rooting section in my 15 years here, and that started because of the social media debate.”
Oak Ridge played Ponderosa from 1980 to 2013 up the Highway 50 corridor. But Ponderosa administrators pulled the plug, conceding Oak Ridge had become too dominant. Though Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere misses the series, he said weekly Sierra Foothill League games have a feel of rivalries. The SFL includes Bee-ranked teams Folsom, Del Oro, No. 5 Rocklin, No. 6 Oak Ridge and No. 15 Granite Bay.
Volek, the El Dorado coach, halted the Gold Pan series with Ponderosa for much the same reasons Ponderosa waved the white flag with Oak Ridge. Ponderosa beat El Dorado in 18 of the previous 19 meetings before the series was paused in 2011. Ponderosa’s enrollment had dwarfed that of El Dorado, meaning more football players to pick from.
“El Dorado went through some dark days,” Volek said. “We couldn’t compete with Ponderosa. I got rid of the series and people were upset with me, but we had to get our program on our feet, get the kids in the weight room, get them stronger. A bad rivalry loss, the physical toll, it can decimate your team and morale. When a rivalry game isn’t balanced, it’s no longer fun.”
There are two schools of thought. For us, Elk Grove is our rivalry game, and we look to beat them just to get into the playoffs. They look to beat us on their way to winning a section title.
Mike Johnson, Franklin football coach
Bad blood has also doomed rivalries. The Davis-Woodland series, which started in 1928, was halted after the 2007 season because of acrimony between the student sections. The series resumed in 2012, and Davis won 40-0 and 7-0 before it was stopped again.
On-field fights ended the Casa Roble-Del Campo series, which started in 1976. For a 10-year stretch, through 2011, the winner captured the league championship.
“If we played Del Campo in a nonleague game early in the season, it wouldn’t be the same,” Casa Roble coach Norm Ryan said. “A rivalry game needs to mean something.”
Ryan, a Bella Vista graduate, said the San Juan Unified School District has lost the rivalry feel. In the 1960s and ’70s, El Camino-Mira Loma was the game, with crowds of 10,000 packing the stadium and the winning team throwing coaches into the pool.
Two weeks ago, Mira Loma ended a 31-game losing streak. Matadors coach Toby Thurman takes his team into San Juan on Friday. He is billing it as a rivalry game, saying, “Any game that’s close and competitive and fun for us is a rivalry game.”
FRIDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
The Bee’s print edition will feature expanded coverage every Sunday, including insight from Joe Davidson, highlights of the top weekend games, how The Bee’s Top 20 fared, scores and more. Can’t wait until Sunday? Go to sacbee.com after the games on Friday nights for highlights, scores, photo galleries and more.
Join us every Friday night at 6:30 p.m. to discuss that night’s games before they start and as they are played. sacbee.com
Where’s Joe D?
The Bee’s Davidson will be in Grass Valley on Friday for Bear River’s game against Marysville.
Bee photographers will be at Marysville at Bear River and Mira Loma at San Juan on Friday night. sacbee.com/high-school
Calling on coaches
Area high school football coaches are encouraged to report results immediately after games. Call 916-441-4100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.