Despite being a mere five miles apart, Monterey Trail and Cosumnes Oaks had never faced off in football.
Maybe they should order up a home-and-away series now.
Monterey Trail sealed a white-knuckle, thrill-ride 29-28 victory at Cosumnes Oaks on Friday night in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I opener every bit as good as advertised in igniting what could be a promising rivalry.
The meeting between the Elk Grove Unified School District programs featured a bevy of backs, speed and daring plays, and the dust didn’t finally settle on the FieldTurf until Jermaine Bell jumped high for an interception to stall the Wolfpack’s gallant final drive. Bell, not sure what to do with his good fortune, ran a bit, then decided to fall as time ran out, opening the floodgates for players and coaches to rush the field.
In sizing up the plucky Mustangs, small in roster numbers but always enormous in heart and effort, Cosumnes Oaks coach Derick Milgrim said simply earlier in the week: “They just play so hard. It jumps out on field.”
That’s been the trademark for T.J. Ewing-coached teams since the Bay Area product started the program on Calvine Road 11 years ago. He endured an 0-10 first season, kept with it, imploring effort, and directed two teams to the Division I section final. Opposing coaches groan when Monterey Trail arrives on the schedule, knowing their tuckered athletes will rub out welts the next morning.
Ewing likes to say of his veer-run team that there is heart and that there is a bit more.
“Sometimes,” he said, “we have dudes, real dudes.”
The chief dude would be Trey Nahhas, the tremendous senior running back who rumbled, rolled, blasted and scooted for 266 yards. He had an 18-yard touchdown for a 21-14 Mustangs lead, and his 1-yard score with 6:14 left to play put the Mustangs in position to take the lead for good. Per his aggressive, cleats-to-the-throat nature, Ewing called for a two-point conversion, and quarterback E.J. Viacrusis hit a wide-open Neville Bood for the conversion and the momentum.
Nahhas has 2,159 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns, having run over every defense thrown his way. This includes games of 272 yards against Grant, 232 against Elk Grove, 174 against Jesuit and 345 against Davis in the previous four weeks.
“Nahhas,” Ewing said, “is special. Great student, great player, 100-percent workhorse. He’s a big-time dude. Jermaine Bell is a dude. We’ve got a lot of dudes.”
Bell had an interception and returned it to the Cosumnes Oaks 10 a moment later, but a penalty moved the ball back to midfield. Cosumnes Oaks held on downs but stalled later, and its first foray into D-I came to a crushing halt.
Cosumnes Oaks (8-3) salvaged its season twice, sticking together when adversity nearly shredded things to bits. The program was rocked when founding coach Ryan Gomes wasn’t retained during the summer, ushering in the Milgrim era. Despite being pleased with his role as a Wolfpack assistant at the time, Milgrim stepped in as interim head coach to provide stability. That he had veteran assistant coaches with head-coaching experience – Jared Brown, Will Hightower and Lew Lassetter – made for a smooth transition.
After a 1-2 start, Cosumnes Oaks bounced back to finish unbeaten in the Capital Valley Conference behind team leaders such as quarterback Jaaron Stallworth and junior running back Dante Davis, who competes in honor of his brother Jurrelle Davis, a Cosumnes Oaks football player who died in 2011 from a severe asthma attack.
“I think we all stuck together then and now because we’re like a family,” said Brown.
Monterey Trail (7-4) finished fifth in the ever-brutal Delta League but is a few bounces away from being 8-2. The Mustangs led Bee No. 2 Grant 15-14 at halftime before falling 54-29, lost 28-21 at No. 3 Jesuit and lost 34-27 on a last-play goal-line stand at No. 4 Elk Grove.
“We compete,” Ewing said. “That’s what we do. Anytime you have teams in Elk Grove playing each other, this is going to happen. Kids know each other. They get excited and just go at it.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.