College Sports

Area community colleges offer stepping stone to developing players

Chris Guillen will be quarterbacking for American River College this fall. Here, he throws a pass against Vista Del Lago at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday, November 7, 2014.
Chris Guillen will be quarterbacking for American River College this fall. Here, he throws a pass against Vista Del Lago at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday, November 7, 2014.

Ben Noonan knows football season is here.

The Sierra College coach is light on sleep and heavy in preparation for Saturday’s season opener against visiting Fresno City College. The anticipation practically has him bouncing off the walls. .

“I won’t sleep the next few days, and that’s how coaches are,” Noonan said Thursday with a laugh.

Amid the excitement that comes with the start of high school, major college and the NFL seasons, the community college level – also referred to as JUCO or JCs – are often the overlooked level of play. But it’s hard to argue against the entertainment value of the two-year college game, where scoring is usually in abundance and numerous athletes annually advance to four year-programs.

And the regional community college product is strong. Sacramento City College, a powerhouse in the 1980s and ’90s, has shown glimpses of new glory under coach Dannie Walker. American River has been especially formidable since 2005 with coaches Don Dillon, and then Jerry Haflich and now Jon Osterhout, who had the Beavers nationally ranked in recent seasons.

Sierra has appeared in 12 bowl games in the past 15 seasons and won 37 consecutive games with coach Jeff Tisdel from 2002 to 2005. In his third season at Sierra, Noonan speaks fondly of the JC experience. He played receiver at Santa Rosa in the 1990s when he got hooked on coaching.

“Without a doubt, it’s a great challenge,” Noonan said. “We recruit kids, and they tell us we’re their backup plan. There are two reasons JC kids play. One, they’re still developing, physically, and No. 2, they’re developing academically. Or both. And every now and then, a guy just gets overlooked.

“I’m a JC product. I know what this has done for me, the jobs and opportunities I got from going JC. I believe in what we’re doing, what coach Walker is doing at Sac City, what coach Osterhout is doing at ARC. The guidance, the structure, that missing piece to their game, we get to help them find it and develop it, and it’s just really cool.”

Part of the joy of JC ball, Noonan said, was having Cole Brownholtz for one season out of Jesuit High School, last fall, and then wishing him well as he accepted a scholarship to Hawaii. Now the Sierra quarterback reins go to Adam Besana, a strapping 6-foot-5, 245-pound freshman from Roseville High. His father, Fred, played at Sierra and Cal in the 1970s.

Besana will throw to Isaiah Bailey, a Jesuit graduate who caught 15 touchdown passes for Sierra last season. Bailey didn’t envision coming to Sierra, and he didn’t expect to have so much fun. He is being recruited by Big Sky Conference teams.

“I’ve never worked harder, been more motivated, because going JC was humbling,” Bailey said. “But people underestimate and underappreciate JC ball. It’s so good. We’re all looking to move on. I’ve met friends for life that I never would have met if I didn’t come here.”

Osterhout and Walker were standout players at Sacramento State, and like Noonan, they buy into the JC grind. Osterhout said ARC’s motto is, “to help players strive to become the best version of themselves.”

ARC quarterback Chris Guillen of Christian Brothers has deep-threat receivers L.J. Reed of Cosumnes Oaks (a bounce-back from Fresno State) and Damen Wheeler, The Bee’s Offensive Player of the Year from Sacramento High in 2014. All are getting looked at by four-year colleges.

All the area JC coaches know the local high school players because they recruit the same kids.

“Recruiting is the biggest challenge,” Noonan said. “You can recruit a kid hard, every day, and until he turns in that eligibility paperwork on Aug. 10, you don’t know if you have him. Either way, you just keep working. In this sport, you have to work.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD