High School Sports

New field, new era for Placer Hillmen, who fall in a thriller to storied Cardinal Newman

Watch Placer High go up against powerhouse Cardinal Newman

Placer High School challenges Northern California powerhouse Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, at the first game played on their newly renovated field.
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Placer High School challenges Northern California powerhouse Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, at the first game played on their newly renovated field.

The field glistens and sparkles now at LeFebvre Field.

The days of grass, dirt, and often mud and muck are a thing of the past at Placer High School as nostalgia and a throwback field gave way to current times and common sense.

On Friday the Hillmen ushered in a new era with a synthetic turf that has been years in the making. Bulldozers went to work following last June’s graduation commencement on a campus that opened in 1897, and the rush was on the get the field prepared, polished and ready for the home opener against Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa.

The last item to be finished, a minor detail, were the north end zone goal posts. That happened late Thursday evening.

That Placer lost this battle of storied programs 30-27 on a last-second Jackson Pavitt-to-Tsion Nunnally touchdown pass was the only downer on an otherwise a momentous night, played out in front of an overflow setting that included a raucous student section, a band and Hillmen alums dating back to the 1950s.

Hans Grassman proved he’s a grinder of a running back for all seasons. The burly 6-foot-4, 235-pound senior rushed for three touchdowns, and the Hillmen went toe-to-toe against a program that once held the state record for consecutive wins in the 1970s (47) and came in ranked No. 10 in Northern California by MaxPreps.

Even with the Fast Friday’s Motorcyle Speedway and the Gold Country Fair in full gear nearby on Friday, Placer home football games remain a festive epicenter in town — no matter the surface.

“I’m a football romantic, and I love the grass, but it was time,” said Mike Sabins, a Hillmen to the core. He played football at LeFebvre in the early 1980s, was the head coach at Placer in the 1990s and is still on staff, coaching the offensive line, a unit that includes his son, Jackson.

Sabins is a busy man. He is also the school’s assistant athletic director and activities director. And he is the union president who sat in on board meetings to get this field done, thanks to development fees.

To the old field, Sabins and friends bid a farewell to a loyal friend. Hello, new surface and grass-free uniforms.

“It’s just awesome,” Sabins said. “It just looks ... pretty.”

What wasn’t pretty was the conditions the Placer girls and boys soccer teams had to endure over two years of winter seasons. The girls managed two home games in that time and the boys three. It wasn’t uncommon for the soccer teams to get a practice in on a mud-free patch of asphalt on campus.

“I always pulled for natural grass because of the history of it, and we’re so used to it here, but we needed the new field,” Placer athletic director Mark Lee said. “The soccer teams deserved a better field. I’d come out here to the field at night and see kids kicking the ball on the track to practice, or in the gym, or in the parking lot.”

The new field is anchored by a rustic press box that bears the name of LeFebvre.

Ralph LeFebvre was a custodian at Placer who earned an emergency teaching credential in the 1940s when there was a sudden teacher shortage during World War II. He coached various sports and taught on campus for decades.

Placer for 60 years played its home games at the Gold Country Fairgrounds before common sense prevailed.

“They used to have hard-top jalopy car races there, and then play football games on that field,” said Mike Ray, the longtime Colfax Record sports editor. “There were pieces of glass, broken car parts, old bolts in the dirt. Not good.”

Placer’s first home game was in 1968, which included 11-0 championship seasons in the 1970s, including contests in the mud where identifying jersey numbers was a challenge.

Coach Joey Montoya grew up on Placer football, his grandfather Bill Miller the famed Hillmen coach in the 1970s and early ‘80s.

Montoya is in his 13th season as the Placer coach, and he embraces the pride and pressure of coaching his alma mater.

He’s also learned to embrace change.

“We miss the grass, no doubt, but when you live with a soccer coach (Megan) who coaches the girls team here, and you’ve seen the struggles they’ve had just to have a place to practice or play, you understand,” Montoya said. “When the boss lady talks, you listen!”

Mud is a great neutralizer but it can also doom teams. It nearly ended Placer’s perfect season last November in the playoffs.

“We won 7-6 over River Valley, but there was no footing and it hindered us, and it was literally a soupy mess. The field never recovered because it never drains.

“That’s no longer a problem.”