It is not uncommon for players to lift weights with boots on, or to watch film while peering under the brim of their cowboy hats.
It’s what they do with pride at East Nicolaus High School, enrollment 280, rooted in the heart of Sutter County, 25 miles north of Sacramento County. The Spartans roster includes teenagers who live on farms, and they attend a school surrounded by rice fields and almond orchards.
It’s small town America where the pulse of a team’s football fortunes resonate across the region and course through campus as a barometer of civic pride. And it’s a hearty pulse.
East Nicolaus is a booming small-school powerhouse. Big games warrant a send off from the hard-working souls of the town of Trowbridge, including Saturday morning for a Northern Section Division IV semifinal game at Winters, a team from a town that can speak of the profound impact of high school sports.
East Nicolaus prevailed 46-13 under cloudy skies and on top of a soft, grayish grass surface to improve to 12-0. The Spartans have peeled off recent seasons of 13-1, 13-1 and 13-2 under coach Travis Barker, a barrel-chested friendly sort who fancies his weekday garb of jeans and boots and his role as coach as well as wood shop and welding teacher.
“We still have kids who wear boots in the weight room, and the cowboy hats,” Barker said, laughing. “We try to discourage it, but it’s who and what we are. It’s part of our school and identity. The last few days this week we practiced in the rain, and kids had duck-hunting gear under their football stuff. I was thinking, ‘look at this rag-tag group!’ ”
East Nicolaus and Winters athletes pursue championships with the same zest as those from large-school powers such as Folsom, Del Oro, Placer, Colfax and Bear River. The games and brotherhood mean just as much, if contested for a smaller audience.
What also binds programs such as East Nicolaus is the generations of players who are linked to one another.
Barker grew up dreaming of playing for famed Spartans coach Geoff Wahl, and he did, helping the program win its first Northern Section title in 1991 as a hard-charging fullback and linebacker. Barker accepted his first teaching and coaching job in 1998 and exhibits all the enthusiasm of a guy who doesn’t plan to leave any time soon.
His son, Mitch, is a bullish fullback who scored on a 3-yard run against Winters. The offensive coordinator is Neil Stinson, who is also the school’s athletic director and softball coach, going 32-2 last spring (Barker also coaches baseball).
Stinson’s son is JT, short in stature but good luck tackling him. He scored on runs of 5, 3 and 5 yards on Saturday. JT transferred from Del Oro, where he was a wrestler, to be with his father.
Being on the same campus as your pop also means one has to be a good citizen and good student. Word travels fast if you’re not, and no one wants to camp out in the principal’s office.
“I love the environment at East Nicolaus,” JT Stinson said. “I like the small-town feel.”
Said Mitch Barker, “That’s why I like it at East Nic so much — small-school pride. There’s a lot of it. We’re mostly made up of local kids. We’re a huge football town. It means a lot, and we’re just getting warmed up. More games to go.”
If there was a turning point for coach Barker and his program, it happened in 2014.
In that season’s Northern Section title game, Winters beat East Nicolaus 42-12 to cap a 12-1 season. Not all section champions advanced to Northern California title games in 2014. That trend started in 2015 with CIF playoff expansion, and it included East Nicolaus charging to a 13-2 season.
The Spartans won a CIF state championship with a 16-6 win over Coronado, a school that dwarfed East Nicolaus in size but not in blocking and tackling. Coach Barker mandated more rigorous weight-room sessions in 2015, and if the Spartans are identified with physicality.
Winters coach and alumnus Daniel Ward noticed the difference Saturday.
“They were just too strong for us,” Ward said of the Spartans. “Their staff is great. You’re almost jealous of them with that success, and they’ve done it the right way. They’ve been a force ever since that last time we played them.”
Said coach Barker, “Our kids are amazing. They’ve become part of our tradition. They honestly don’t think anyone can beat them.”