Laguna Creek High School’s football program has enjoyed good times in its 25-year existence: league championships, Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berths, NCAA Division I-caliber student-athletes and a handful of NFL players.
The last 10 years have been lean, with one winning record since the 2008 team advanced to the Division I section semifinal – aka the City Championship – with new schools, open enrollment and the occasional transfer helping to gut enrollment.
Last year’s Cardinals team went 1-9.
This season’s team is beefed up in an old-school way. The only thing the Cardinals (2-1) didn’t do Friday night was win, dropping a 22-21 nail-biter to visiting and equally gutty Dublin at Cosumnes River College in a nonleague game, disrupting only a sliver of a silver-anniversary celebration that included recognition of the school’s first Hall of Fame class.
Fans spilled from the stands into two sizeable patches of greenbelt on a beautiful night, where kids played catch, ran routes, rolled, slid and occasionally looked up to see Laguna Creek senior Tyrel Brown breaking off runs of 78 and 51 yards on his way to 259 yards in 24 carries.
Ryan Nill, a 2006 Laguna Creek graduate, was promoted from JV head coach to varsity head coach this season. His dad, Mark, the coach of that 2008 team and several other successful Cardinals teams, has taken over the JV team. He also assists on the varsity on game night.
Former Cardinals coaches have returned from other schools. Laguna Creek graduates have come aboard as assistant coaches. Enrollment has increased, with back-to-back freshman classes of 500-plus. And, unlike at many other schools, fear of injury and loss of interest haven’t hit the campus in Elk Grove. The JV team has 52 players.
“We are tapped on jerseys,” Nill said.
Ryan Nill watched sophomore Adam Gunning turn a short catch into a touchdown of about 50 yards during the JV game. He and Gabe Strika are part of the new culture. The JV team is 3-0 following an 18-0 victory over Dublin, with three consecutive shutouts.
“They are so committed to what we are trying to do,” Nill says of Gunning and Strika. “They lived in the weight room all summer. They worked out with the varsity. The seniors are setting the foundation now instead of as freshmen. We really worked at getting stronger at all levels.
“The football IQ is low. We’re teaching the game instead of teaching scheme, and that’s part of the fun.”
What wasn’t fun Friday night was a 91-yard pick-six by Dublin’s Javoni Gardere in the first quarter, thwarting a Laguna Creek drive from its 4-yard line to the Dublin 14, with a 78-yard blast up the middle by Brown chunking up most of that yardage.
Trailing in the fourth quarter, Laguna Creek took a 21-14 lead on a 30-yard scoring pass from Brown to David Wood and a two-point conversion with 3:19 left.
Dublin (2-1) needed a minute to regain the lead, and it was all Nick Costello, who returned the kickoff to the Dublin 47, scored on a 43-yard sweep three plays later and caught a pass from Jack Sweeney on the 2-point conversion for the lead.
He intercepted a pass on Laguna Creek’s fourth-down pass to seal the win.