High School Sports

One win from Knighthood: Rugged Rio Linda plays for school’s first state championship

They’ve heard the smack talk. They’ve seen the sneers.

Rio Linda has a bad reputation, fair or not. That’s no secret.

A certain national radio host, whose first name rhymes with Blush, has been bashing the town for decades, calling it Sacramento’s armpit among other detractions and derisives.

But with a victory Saturday night, the Rio Linda Knights football team can answer the town’s critics and become the fifth Sacramento-area high school to win a state title after Grant, Folsom, Granite Bay and Del Oro.

The Knights (12-2) host San Gorgonio (12-3) at 6 p.m. Saturday in the CIF State Division 5-AA final.

“Our community gets such a bad rap,” Knights coach Jack Garceau said. “Anywhere around Sacramento, people take shots at us as if we’re less than them. We’re not. My wife and her family are from here. I plan on teaching here until I retire. I’ve been teaching here since 2007 and coaching here since 2001. This town is full of hard-working, blue-collar folks, and that shows up in the kids they send us.

“These kids are as tough as they come. They’ve experienced tough love in a generation where that’s not the thing to do. But we can be brutally honest with them. They expect that and most certainly can handle that.”

A successful football team can do wonders for a town. Civic pride increases. Letterman jackets are found and worn. The jackets may be a little tighter, but pride always fits.

The banter at the Creekside Diner, arguably Rio Linda’s hub, has turned away from politics to whether the Knights can actually win a state title and how they’ll pull off the feat. A recent holiday parade turned into a celebration of the team and what it has accomplished, having already gone where no Rio Linda team has gone before.

John Todd owns Rio Linda Online and has run the website for 10 years. It’s the place Rio Lindans go to report potholes and post lost-dog notices. He sees and hears the barbs thrown Rio Linda’s way but remains a staunch defender, loyal supporter and No. 1 advocate.

“We caught a bad reputation for whatever reason, and Rush Limbaugh certainly didn’t help,” Todd said. “Being semi-rural, we’re always seen as the county bumpkins, but that’s not truly representative. Rio Linda is a small town where a lot of people don’t leave (by design). There’s about 2 degrees of separation in this town, and we’re all proud to be Knights.”

Todd was the announcer for the third annual Christmas Lights Parade. Halfway through the parade of lighted flatbeds and classic cars, the Knights football team rolled by. Todd stopped the parade as cheers rose through the crowd.

“The football team came by and it turned into a celebration,” Todd said. “I interviewed the coach (Garceau) and (running back) Cameron (Skattebo), and people were so excited. I think another parade will be in order if they win.”

Garceau was an assistant under head coach Mike Morris when the Knights won their first Sac-Joaquin Section title in 2004. Garceau said he was shocked with the amount of people at the parade and the reception he and his team received.

“The town, teachers, the students - they’re all backing us,” Garceau said. “No matter where I go, people are asking me for tickets and fans are asking me if we’re going to win. I tell them we have a very tough opponent.”

San Gorgonio is in San Bernardino. The Spartans are led by senior quarterback Jordan Pachot, who has thrown for 4,084 yards and 37 touchdowns. The Spartans also have junior running back Elijah Hall, who has rushed for 2,210 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Pachot’s favorite target is Jaylen Mathews, a junior with 103 receptions for 1,428 yards and 12 touchdowns. But when defenses key on stopping Mathews, David Whaley gets open and has 1,018 yards on 51 catches and adds another 15 touchdowns to the Spartans’ prodigious offensive output.

San Gorgonio’s defense will have to contend with Skattebo. The junior has amassed 3,157 yards on 274 carries. That’s a little more than a first down (11.5 yards) each time he takes a handoff.

Skattebo is a 5-foot-10, 200-pound ball of explosives who can take the initial hit at the line of scrimmage, bounce off and blow by linebackers and safeties. Skattebo leads an offense that has scored 48 or more points nine times. Skattebo has 39 rushing touchdowns, and in late October and early November he was simply devastating.

On Oct. 26 at Nevada Union, Skattebo had 26 carries for 390 yards. He followed with 24 carries for 293 yards at home against Pacheco of Los Banos. He had 28 carries for 239 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-13 NorCal Regional victory over West Valley in Red Bluff.

“My favorite play is a counter called ‘Cowboy,’” Skattebo said. “I know there may be an outside linebacker out there alone and that’s it, the tackle and guard on that side we go to will pull and crush people, and it will be there.”

Skattebo said being part of the first Rio Linda team to go to a state title game is a great experience, especially since no one expected them to get this far.

“Sometimes when I leave town, I hear, ‘Oh, you’re from Rio Linda. That place sucks,’” Skattebo said. “That just gives me more energy. This whole town works hard. That’s part of our culture, and why we all work hard.”

Garceau has the perspective to see the similarities and differences between the 2004 section title team and the 2018 version that has the town talking. The town’s demographics haven’t changed much. Tough kids willing to work are the through line, Garceau said.

But this squad has a chance to do something special, and they know it. A state title? What a huge victory, not only for the high school but for all 15,000 Rio Lindans.

“When we won the section title in 2004 there was some finality,” Garceau said. “That was it. There wasn’t a regional game and a state title game. This season, it’s like we’re stuck in cruise control – but at 90 mph.”

“It’s been surreal,” Garceau said. “After we won the regional, we didn’t really know how to act and feel. All these crazy things keep happening for us. But one thing is for sure, this team will always be talked about as one of the best. I told them it’s time to be greedy.”

And it may be time for another parade. Maybe they’ll invite Mr. Limbaugh.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee