Unique Perez reiterated his commitment, and it came across as music to the ears of his coaches.
“I don’t have time for girlfriends,” the Cordova High School quarterback said before Monday’s practice. “Just time for this – school and football. Has to be that way.”
Coach Vance Mueller grinned and offered Perez a high-five.
“That is what we need!” Mueller, now in his third year as the Lancers’ coach, said. “Before, we had too many kids who couldn’t get out of their own way.”
Never miss a local story.
Mueller took over a struggling program that once was one of the region’s most respected. Morale was low, the defeats frequent and often lopsided. When he checked the equipment shed on his first day, he found 85 helmets were missing. The recovery was painfully slow, but the hard work is paying dividends with the Lancers off to a 6-0 start this season.
“We needed a complete, total scrubdown of the program,” Mueller said. “We had to get rid of players who didn’t have good character, didn’t care about school. We were putting guys on the field that first year who had no business being out there. We had kids who didn’t know anything about football. Didn’t watch it, didn’t really participate in it, didn’t know the terminology.
“We’ve grown so much. It’s been baby steps, but we’re getting there.”
Cordova is unbeaten after six weeks for the first time since 2003 and for just the second time since 1990. Those also are the last two seasons the Lancers won a league championship.
Mueller, 1-9 his first season and 2-8 last fall, demanded accountability, selflessness and effort from his players. But some habits were hard to break, and he cut nine players last season, including Ventrell Dyson, a 5-foot-4, 110-pound wide receiver, who pleaded with Mueller to return.
“I told him, ‘Give me one reason why I should let you back, because you represent everything that we cannot have here,’” Mueller said. “He said he was wrong, and he grew from it, and he’s been a model citizen since. He’s been great for us this season, our ‘Mr. Excitement.’”
Said Dyson: “I learned, I matured. I need football. I needed coach to be the way he was.”
Xavier Dillard-Johnson, a senior linebacker and running back, was benched for a game because of academics, and he got the message, too.
“He was in serious jeopardy of not graduating,” Mueller said. “Now he’s on track.”
Mueller called Dillard-Johnson over and asked him, “See what happens when you try?”
Said Dillard-Johnson: “Coach is right. He’s put me in the right direction.”
Mueller was a star athlete at Jackson High, since renamed Argonaut, in Jackson in the early 1980s, an everyman player who made it big. He excelled at tiny Occidental College in Southern California, was a fourth-round pick of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1986 and grinded out six seasons as a running back and on special teams.
Mueller, a successful businessman with a ranch in Jackson, said he didn’t need the headache of revitalizing a struggling program, but he was lured by the Lancers’ legacy.
“When I was growing up in Jackson, I’d get on my bike and ride three miles to pick up The Sacramento Bee on Sundays to check on one school,” Mueller said. “That was the Cordova Lancers. That was the team. People ask, ‘Why build Cordova?’ Because I’m a purist. In this area, Cordova had the greatest football program around, and if you can ever regain any of that, this place would really go crazy.”
It is going crazy now. Home games have become festive, and Lancers banners adorn the hallways. Practices are lively and spirited. And there is talk of championships again.
“We’re proud to be Lancers,” said Perez, who has 15 touchdown passes.
“The success of this team, it’s been huge for the morale of the school and the entire campus is alive,” said Shane Jackson, a Cordova science teacher who doubles as athletic director. “It was pretty lean here since 2007, and Mueller has come in and built something. And they’re not just building themselves into football players and a team, but as young men for the future. Because football isn’t just a game; it’s an advent to the rest of their lives.”
Return of a dynasty?
With 75-man rosters dotted with national recruits, “Big Red” dominated the region in the 1970s under coaches Dewey Guerra and Ron Lancaster, and its 106-7-1 record for the decade was tops in the country. Cordova then was 98-11-2 in the 1980s under coach Max Miller, leading the Sac-Joaquin Section in victories. After going 11-1 in 1990, the decline began.
Several factors were to blame, including dropping enrollment, the closure of nearby Mather Air Force Base in 1993 and an influx of students from Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union, who for the most part were more focused on the classroom than the football field.
Cordova’s streak of 28 consecutive winning seasons – still a section record – ended in 1993 with a 3-7 showing in Miller’s last season. By 1998, Cordova was 0-10, and Miller returned in 1999 and built the Lancers into a 12-1 team by 2003. But he stepped down after the 2007 season, and the Lancers slipped again.
Mueller wasn’t the popular choice by scores of alumni who wanted a Cordova graduate as coach, but he’s since won everyone over.
“It was so hard to see how badly this program had dropped,” assistant coach Virgil Brown, a 1970 Cordova graduate, said. “We used to think we could never lose when we were great here, then we didn’t think we could win. Now we believe.”
Brown uses his background to motivate players. He reminded leading receiver Devin Baldwin that Jerry Manuel once wore jersey No.11, and that he has a legend to live up to. Manuel was an All-America flanker at Cordova in 1971 who later was the American League Manager of the Year with the Chicago White Sox.
“We talk tradition here because it still means something,” Brown said. “The kids here today, this is their legacy now.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.