Travis Barker had his Sunday morning planned.
The East Nicolaus High School football coach was going to camp out in front of his laptop, coffee in one hand, remote in the other to monitor the 49ers-Browns game, and pore over hours of his team’s game film. He was going to study and scheme for the biggest sports event in the history of this tiny town nestled in the heart of Sutter County some 25 miles north of Sacramento, where the community focus is on farming during the week and football on fall weekends.
Then the power went out, courtesy of the storm that wreaked havoc across the region that day. So Barker did the next best thing. He went duck hunting.
“I wound up in a duck blind,” Barker recalled this week with a hearty laugh. “No power, so what to do? I couldn’t let a good day go by.”
Barker’s joy exemplifies the spirit of East Nicolaus these days, beyond the perks of the outdoors, where football rules and duck blinds allow a contrast of calm: sitting, waiting, hoping. East Nicolaus is an example of small-school America, where agriculture and athletics bind the generations and generally set the regional mood. So it’s no wonder all 280 students on this campus – surrounded by rice fields and almond orchards – are buzzing in anticipation for Saturday night’s big game in a big city far from home.
East Nicolaus (12-2) plays Coronado (10-4) in San Diego for the CIF State Division VI-AA championship. It is the smallest classification of the 13 divisions competing for CIF titles, thanks to a playoff expansion that allows for small schools with big hopes to have such an experience.
Coronado has 1,200 students, dwarfing East Nic, yet there isn’t a single Spartans player conceding an ounce of anything. A team built on country-strong players has embraced every challenge hurled its way.
We have kids who lift (weights) with boots on, watch film with cowboy hats. It’s who and what we are, and we love it.
Travis Barker, East Nicolaus football coach
“We’re thrilled,” said Barker, a stout man with a friendly face and firm handshake. He was wearing jeans, boots and a heavy jacket, reflective of his other campus duties as the wood shop and welding teacher. He was also wearing quite a grin. He has taken East Nicolaus from a three-win team to a state championship appearance in two seasons. Work ethic and pride are the key ingredients, Barker said.
“This weight room,” Barker continued, pointing, “we have to kick kids out of here; they work that hard. We have kids who lift with boots on, watch film with cowboy hats. It’s who and what we are, and we love it.”
Growing up Spartan
Barker is a product of the region. He played linebacker and fullback at East Nicolaus, helping the Spartans win their first Northern Section championship in 1991 under coach Geoff Wahl, who stepped down in 1998 after 35 years. Barker graduated from Nevada and took his first and only teaching and coaching job at his alma mater in 1998. He doesn’t plan on leaving. The football and teaching experiences are too rich, the duck blinds too inviting.
If Barker represents the soul of the football program, his wife, Dolly, is the spirit, a blur of activity on game night. And their two young children are deeply involved, too.
“A coach like Travis makes more of a difference than any other figure in a community like this,” said Karen Villalobos, the East Nicolaus principal and district superintendent. “You know the saying, ‘How goes the football team is how goes the campus?’ That’s us, and that’s the reality of a small-town campus. The players are big here, role models, and the coach is a rock star.”
Said Barker: “From the sixth grade on, it was my dream to play football here for Coach Wahl. That’s the kind of legend he was, and what kind of school and region this is. Dreams come true.”
Upon entering the high school main-office doors, visitors can’t help but notice the two sheets of “Principal Honor Roll” students. Two-thirds of the school’s students are on the list.
We’re planning a parade, regardless of what happens this weekend. Have to have a parade. This is big. This is huge.
Karen Villalobos, East Nicolaus principal
Above Villalobos’ office door is a sign that reads, “It’s All Good.” Said Villalobos: “It really is all good here. We’re planning a parade, regardless of what happens this weekend. Have to have a parade. This is big. This is huge.”
Villalobos graduated from Davis High School and Chico State. She spent summers in ankle-deep dirt or mud, working irrigation pipes for her father’s orchard farm, so she can relate to the region.
“I’ve changed my share of valves and can get in the mud with anyone,” Villalobos said, laughing. Villalobos also discussed the on-going school upgrades from a bond measure. Soon, there will be new roofs and a new weight room. The school campus opened in 1974, but it has aged.
“The old campus burned in 1973 when neighbors were burning a crop field and it got away from them – whoops!” Villalobos said. “It’s a romantic tale now. All of this is.”
Nothing speaks of town unity quite like the sign that hangs below the scoreboard at Geoff Wahl Field, which features real grass, outlined by old bleachers. The sign reads of a primary team sponsor: “Moe’s Crop Dusting Service.”
The farmers know Moe. Jimmy and Curtis Hudson are sixth-generation walnut farmers who operate Hudson Orchards. Curtis, whose father is Jimmy, played for Barker in the late 1990s, and his loyalty to the Spartans remains. In a matter of hours last weekend, Hudson helped raise $7,500 from locals to help the families of players travel to San Diego for the big game.
“We’re all pitching in because we’re a special community, strongly based on agriculture and the school,” Hudson said. “That’s the great thing about a small town, the family values, everything. We don’t have what others in a big city have, but we have each other, and that’s plenty.”
Big Red express
Signs of “BIG RED” dot the weight room, symbolic of the team’s colors. Though the players are generally small in stature, they play plenty big.
It starts with Louis Carcamo. He’s a 5-foot-6, 150-pound offensive lineman who uses wrestling moves and grit to block. He’s a 4.0 GPA student who wants to study nursing because, “I care about people.”
Other key Spartans include all-purpose player Eddie Herrera, quarterback Steven Brown and running backs Nolan Goyet and Wyatt McCollum. But the real star is tailback Don Switalski. He’s 6-foot, 205 pounds, and his 2,849 rushing yards this season represent a Northern Section record. He is generating recruiting interest from Nevada and UC Davis, among others. He’s a 3.7 student who wants to study medicine.
“We can’t believe what’s happening this season, but we love it,” Switalski said. “Everyone in town knows who we are and is pulling for us. We don’t want this to end.”