In his first ever football game, Damian Nuss-Guillot played wide receiver and defensive end. He was in on each special teams play and only a mild cramp in his right leg prevented him from playing every down Friday.
With just 16 players on the San Juan Spartans’ roster, Nuss-Guillot had to play despite learning how to strap on football pads this past Monday. When getting students to suit up is half the battle, playing time is assured.
Unfortunately, so is another loss. The Spartans dropped to 0-3 with a 49-8 defeat to Mira Loma at San Juan’s McArthur Field. The Matadors snapped a 31-game losing streak two weeks ago against Encina and improved to 2-2.
Nuss-Guillot, a 5-foot-9, 155-pound junior, also played defensive end and looked like a pinball at times. But he stayed in, committed to his new teammates and committed to learning. In the second half, he took a short kick 37 yards and only a sliding tackle from Matadors kicker Jesus Gonzalez prevented a touchdown.
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“I attended Grant and Liberty Ranch before coming here a couple of months ago,” Nuss-Guillot said. “I couldn’t play until my transfer papers were in order. I came out here not knowing how to do much but my teammates and my coaches have helped a lot.”
The Spartans last won a league title during the Dwight D. Eisenhower presidency. The Citrus Heights high school on busy Greenback Lane has struggled with declining enrollment and shifting demographics for decades. The Spartans have eight more varsity cheerleaders than varsity players.
“Open enrollment hurts,” said assistant coach Russ Hibbard, the only on-campus coach in the Spartans program. “If you give kids in the area choice, they’re going to go across the street to Del Campo or down the road to Bella Vista. We get who’s left.”
Hibbard said he’s constantly recruiting, combing the hallways, his classroom and his physical education classes for young men willing to put in the work. He promises plenty of playing time. He gets few takers.
“Some of it is grades and some of it is football is just too difficult,” said Hibbard, who was the head coach at Encina High for 17 years before coming to San Juan in 2006. “It’s a lot of work and most don’t want to put that work in.”
Hibbard agreed to be an assistant when new co-head coaches Greg Roeszler and Tony Trosin agreed to try to build the program. He said he’s already seen a lot of improvement from the players, even as the team has lost by a combined 64 points in three games.
“Bless their hearts,” Hibbard said of Roeszler and Trosin. “I believe what they’re trying to do. They’re both great guys.”
San Juan has some talent. Tonga Lomano caught a nifty 25-yard touchdown pass from Tui VaiVai for the Spartans’ lone score. VaiVai, a 6-foot, 210-pound junior quarterback, is a rugby player first, and that’s evident by his penchant for delivering blows to would-be tacklers. He rushed for 103 yards on 17 carries and passed for 121 yards.
“It’s hard,” VaiVai said of the grind of losing and the toll it takes on his body; he rarely, if ever, sits out a play. “Did I ever consider transferring to another school? Yes. But that’s a hard question. I have family members that went here and have cousins that go here now. I want to remain loyal.”
The Matadors were led by Dillon Hughes’ touchdown passes of 8 and 48 yards to receiver Dorin Matveev.
The Matadors’ program is a shell of its former self and had just 22 players suit up Friday. The school has three winning seasons since 1984.
And when the team won two weeks ago for the first time in four years, Matadors coach Toby Thurman saw six students come out for the team. He said they’ve stuck with it and each played a significant number of downs Friday.
“I told them if they’re willing to put in the time and commitment they can play,” Thurman said. “They’re still with us.”
Mark Billingsley is a Carmichael-based freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org, @editorwriter001.