Trent Buenzli is an honors student at Oak Ridge High School who doubles as an outside linebacker.
The senior has a 4.8 grade-point average, and you know that’s a high mark when it towers over your best time in the 40-yard dash.
Buenzli is up to his shoulder pads in Advanced Placement courses, five in all, but he found time to slip in another crash course this week: Folsom 101.
Specifically, Buenzli and the Trojans have been brainstorming on ways to deal with the sophisticated offense of the state’s third-ranked team. The rivals meet Saturday night at Sacramento State for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship with more than mere bragging rights at stake.
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Oak Ridge (12-1) features a thinking man’s defense that faces a Bulldogs outfit that doesn’t allow much time to think. Folsom (13-0) wants foes to backpedal, scramble, get flustered. The Bulldogs are 27-1 the past two seasons, scoring in bunches against some of the best defenses in the region with a spread offense heavy on pass protection and players racing to open spots. The leader is junior quarterback Jake Browning, who was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year on Thursday. He leads the nation with 5,093 passing yards and a set a state record with 69 touchdowns, including three to beat Oak Ridge 35-0 in a Delta River League opener Oct. 11.
Buenzli and Co. have been wringing their hands at a chance for redemption since.
“We couldn’t have drawn it up any better than a rematch with Folsom,” Buenzli said. “Folsom has such a solid, great system. To beat Folsom, you have to upset their system.”
In the first meeting, Browning passed for 362 yards but was intercepted four times. Still, Browning made some memorable throws, rolling out and unloading on the run, including a 50-yard strike to Will McClure. Those images appeared crystal clear during film sessions for the Trojans this week.
“It was my worst game, and they played some good defense,” Browning said.
Folsom has a seven-game winning streak against Oak Ridge, but the Trojans remain confident. Folsom’s breakneck-speed offense has keyed two section titles since 2010 while Oak Ridge, which plays for its first D-I title after winning four in D-II, is defined by its defense.
“We buy into the fact that defense wins championships,” Buenzli said. “I feel confident that we’ll prepare and dial up a game plan and convey it into action. We have the ability to adjust and execute. The coaches come up with great ideas and make us look like stars.”
Oak Ridge coaches say their defenders are in fact stars. Buenzli and safety Colton Giorgi, a 4.3 student, could be competing in the Ivy League next season. Buenzli and fellow linebacker Thomas Mahlman were recently named the DRL’s co-Defensive Players of the Year, an impressive honor considering this was perhaps the best league in Northern California.
James Portilla, another linebacker, Mahlman, Buenzli and Giorgi have combined for 465 tackles this season. Buenzli has 71/2 sacks and defensive end Austin Clarke 81/2. Victor Bunce and Drew Lackowski have combined for 10 of the team’s 17 interceptions.
Since Sept. 20 against Grant, Buenzli has rallied his team before the second half. Trailing 10-0, the Trojans applied the defensive muscle to beat the Pacers 20-17. Oak Ridge pitched second-half shutouts in three games down the stretch, beating Jesuit 45-42 in overtime in a regular-season finale, Napa 31-7 in a playoff opener and Granite Bay 28-17 in a quarterfinal.
The Jesuit game was a turning point. The Marauders scored six touchdowns in the first half before Oak Ridge could make quick adjustments. Coaches installed a new defensive plan, and the rest was up to the Trojans.
“We learned it on the fly and made it work,” Mahlman said. “And with the Folsom loss earlier, we have learned by failure. You get better.”
Said coach Eric Cavaliere: “Unbelievable group on defense. It’s the most intelligent group I’ve been around. We do scouting reports on Mondays, and these guys are the ones raising their hands asking questions. No excuses. We’re healthy. We’re prepared. We’re ready to go.”
Giorgi has two relatives who cherish something he wants: championship rings. Giorgi’s grandfather, Jim Dimino, won section D-II championships as El Camino’s coach in 1984 and ’85 with defense as the foundation. Giorgi’s uncle, Mike Dimino, coached Del Campo to section D-III titles in 2006 and 2009. Again, defense was the pillar.
Giorgi said his dream is to study pre-medicine at an Ivy League school with hopes of becoming a surgeon. But can a surgeon operate with mangled knuckles from years of football collisions? And do rings slip over swollen knuckles?
“I know I’ve got to take care of these fingers,” Giorgi said with a laugh. “I’ll find a way to get a ring on there.”