The appeal of high school football is the overwhelming sense of the unknown.
Who knows what will happen? Teenagers working as a unit, reacting in pressure situations, succeeding or falling agonizingly short. Coaches, in effect,moving chess pieces on a field, daring the foe to counter.
And the words screamed by adults who sometimes lose their sense of being role models.
We do know this after 25 years on the beat: A prep game is the best value for the entertainment dollar. Four quarters of fun, or two mixed halves, and sometimes overtime as a bonus. Games can unfold any number of ways, a drama with no fixed ending.
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On Saturday in Carmichael, Jesuit and Oak Ridge offered a glimpse of how exciting the upcoming playoffs might be. Jesuit looked all-world in the first half, stampeding for long touchdown runs with Beau Bisharat and Ben Parietti to lead No. 3 Oak Ridge 42-21 at the half.
Trojans coaches, scheming under a shade tree, scrambled to come up with a defensive plan to stall the Marauders’ run game. They found one, moving ends and linebackers around like chess pieces, and used it in the second half. The Trojans’ thinking: It either works, or it backfires and we all walk back to El Dorado Hills with long faces.
Oak Ridge charged back behind the revamped defense headed by linebacker Trent Buenzli, who has a 4.6 grade-point average, a tackling machine in Thomas Mahlman and sophomore quarterbackIan Book, who tossed three of his five touchdown passes in the second half. The defense had an overtime stop to set up Adam Walter’s game-winning 20-yard field goal for a 45-42 victory, punctuating the second-half shutout.
While Oak Ridge rejoiced, Jesuit looked sick.
Both teams advance to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs. Jesuit knows it can storm past foes if it plays the way it did in Saturday’s first half or be silenced if it plays the way it did in the second.
Oak Ridge will bottle its second-half effort at Jesuit as momentum for a potential repeat run to the title game, and all teams understand no lead is safe.
During the rally, Book, all boyish grins and calm, asked a reporter: “Isn't this fun?”
Who says that during a pressure cooker? Only a teenager who understands this game is supposed to be all about fun.
After games, Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere seeks out his parents, thanking them for the support and inviting input. His father, Bill, regardless of outcome, is quick to point out holding calls or a dropped pass before an assuring handshake and hug. His mother offers a different view.
“I’ll ask my mom (Jerilyn), ‘Well, how’d we look?’ ” Cavaliere said. “She answers differently than Pop. She’ll say, ‘Well, I really think you should wear pants and not shorts for the games.’ Or she'll say, ‘You need to find an iron.’ Love them both!”
Prep football also allows coaches to see players develop and grow in a matter of months. Jesuit wasn’t sure how quarterback Jason Elenberger and the Marauders’ backfield would adjust to the veer offense. They have mostly flourished, with Elenberger setting a school rushing record for quarterbacks.
In the summer, Oak Ridge wasn’t sure who would play quarterback. It went with Book, who works behind a revamped offensive line that includes his older brother, Nolan. Jacob Sipes, who lost the quarterback battle to Book, has emerged as one of the section’s most versatile players at wide receiver, defensive back and punter.
The other appeal of high school football is connecting the generation gap. Players come and go, but memories linger and draw the alumni back. Bisharat’s father, Charlie, was a record-setting running back for Jesuit in the late 1970s. Beau’s cousin, Haitham Bisharat, was a starting right tackle for the Marauders’ first section title team in 1995.
A Trojans observer lately has been Jon DeVille, a star quarterback at Oak Ridge in the early 1990s who now works in law enforcement in El Dorado County.
“Amazing what these kids can do these days,” DeVille marveled.
And Cavaliere and assistant coach Mark Watson compete in honor of the program’s founding coach, Jack Harnden. He died last summer after a battle with lymphoma. His wife, Karen, still attends games with the Watson family and generally sits at the edge of her seat because she cannot begin to predict what will transpire.
“During the half, we decided to install a defense we haven’t used in a good five years or so, and we had our scout offense line up right there and installed it on the spot,” Cavaliere said. “This year’s team is the only one I can think of that we’ve had that could get away with that, and it’s a very smart group. What a difference. The defense was a Jack Harnden special from the good old days.
“Jack would be proud.”