College Sports

JC football season kicks off. This could be a powerhouse year for the Sacramento area

Jon Osterhout has led the American River College football team to regional prominence in recent years. The Beavers played for a state championship in 2016.
Jon Osterhout has led the American River College football team to regional prominence in recent years. The Beavers played for a state championship in 2016. Sacramento Bee file

No one barrels through a high school football tour with the aim of becoming world beaters at the community college/JC level.

But reality can strike with the ferocity of a knee to the neck, and then the real challenges loom.

Between 1 to 2 percent of prep student-athletes in America land full athletic scholarships. Not everyone gets a free ride, and this is why the rosters at two-year colleges in this state are stacked, a feeding ground to four-year programs.

Go watch a practice then catch a game and you will find the competition is relentlessly fierce, especially given that there are more JC football programs in this state (68) than the rest of the country combined.

Patience is a virtue at this level, coaches will tell you, or as American River College coach Jon Osterhout has said, “Guys are ultimately at a JC for a number of reasons: Late bloomers, academics are upside down, athletically not quite evolved, socially not there mentally.

“Then you help develop them.”

And then you unleash them.

The action starts Saturday when rivals ARC and Sacramento City face off at Hughes Stadium at 6 p.m. Sierra hosts longtime national power San Francisco in Rocklin at 1 p.m.

The coaches lead the charge at these programs, recruiting year round and often against each other – Osterhout at ARC, Dannie Walker at Sac City and Ben Noonan at Sierra. They preach the same virtues and benefits of opportunity and they chase the same prizes, including regional bragging rights as each plays one another.

ARC is preseason ranked seventh in the state by the JC Athletic Bureau and Sierra 15th. In the national rankings, ARC is preseason ranked fifth. Laney of Oakland is the preseason No. 1 in the state and plays at ARC on Sept. 14. Laney will be followed extensively for the popular Netflix documentary “Last Chance U.”

“JC ball is the best,” Noonan said. “I’m a JC product and that experience was life changing for me. So many of the young men at this level need guidance in developing leadership qualities on and off the field. Players can leave here better and, most importantly, become better human beings in making their corner of the world a better place.”

Each of the local programs has experienced highs and lows over the decades. This season, all three figure to be powerhouses at the same time for the first time.

Sac City ruled the region in the 1980s and early ’90s with national No. 1 rankings and behemoth scholarship earth movers. Sierra basked in a record-setting 37-game winning streak in the early 2000s, then dipped, but has climbed again. ARC endured 10-0 and 0-10 seasons and has become the regional JC front runner this decade with national accolades, playing for the state championship in 2016. The Beavers are 17-1 this decade against their Sacramento-area rivals.

The challenges for each coach is blending players from different schools and backgrounds into one cohesive group. It either works or it implodes, undone by egos.

The goal for the JC player now is to land at any four-year program, be it Cal, Clemson or USC; a Division II program in the Midwest; or a small-college gig in the South.

Sac City lost to ARC and twice to Sierra in finishing 5-6 in 2018. The Panthers held their own against Laney in a scrimmage last week with a host of new players. ARC and Sierra each went 7-4 last season.

Sierra is paced by quarterback Preston Eklund of Whitney and running backs Christian Simmons of Capital Christian and Graylon Lindsey of Sheldon. A rising recruit for the Wolverines is Eian Moore of Sheldon, who plays every position in the secondary.

ARC’s returning quarterback is Marco Baldacchino of Oak Ridge, who initially went to Northern Arizona of the Big Sky Conference but found that the JC level was the right fit, prompting his ARC arrival a year ago. He dazzles as a pass-run threat, having gone 5-1 last season with the Beavers.

The strength of the team, Osterhout said, is the linebacking unit, headed by George Spithorst of Elk Grove, “a spitting image of Jordan Kunaszyk,” the one-time ARC star now with the Carolina Panthers, Osterhout said. Chimboi Nwokocha of Cosumnes Oaks is “a physical specimen, extremely rangy, high cut and plays with a nasty disposition,” Osterhout said.

And another thing about JC coaches: they’re quotable.

Osterhout said “pressure is a privilege,” and that his team has been “working like a dog on a rawhide bone.”

He added, “We do everything possible to replicate and emulate everything done at a four-year school on a community college budget to help prepare our men for what it will be like as they matriculate to the four-year institution of their choice. The grind has a light at the end of the tunnel, but every year, you have to plunge that shovel into the ground and start the grind all over again.”

California JC football Top 20

Compiled by Fred Baer of the JC Athletic Bureau. Records are from 2018.

1. Laney 11-2

2. Ventura 11-2

3. Riverside 11-1

4. San Mateo 8-3

5. Butte 9-2

6. Canyons 10-1

7. American River 7-4

8. San Francisco 7-4

9. El Camino 8-3

10. Modesto 8-3

11. Fresno 9-3

12. Saddleback 7-4

13. Cerritos 7-4

14. Southwestern 8-3

15. Sierra 7-4

16. Bakersfield 6-5

17. Siskiyous 3-7

18. Fullerton 2-8

19. Chaffey 10-1

20. Hancock 10-1

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.