High School Sports

Sac-Joaquin Section football playoff primer: Teams, themes and more to ponder

Davis High football coach Steve Smyte looks to lead the Blue Devils to their first playoff win in 24 years.
Davis High football coach Steve Smyte looks to lead the Blue Devils to their first playoff win in 24 years. Special to The Sacramento Bee

It’s go time now.

The Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs take form this week in the starting blocks for a four-week sprint to the finals.

Seventy-eight teams spanning seven divisions fill out the brackets for the second-largest of California’s 10 sections.

Too many schools advancing? Not hardly, especially when two 7-3 teams in the section (Laguna Creek and Johansen) and one 8-2 club (Grace Davis) did not advance to the postseason due to criteria that includes league strength, signature wins and computer-formula ranking by CalPreps. Some teams in Southern California have 1-9 or 2-8 teams advancing to the postseason as all sections have different criteria.

And there is this sentiment to coaches, players and followers who feel slighted with seedings or opponent: you can always turn in your gear and gear up for the postseason banquet, and pass the mashed potatoes.

Now is the time for top players and coaches to seal the deal.

A quick-hit peek at themes and trends to ponder:

Upstart Warriors

The last time they made the playoffs was in 2001, and the last winning season was in 2002, so imagine the glee for the Johnson Warriors, who at 8-2 are champions of the Greater Sacramento League and visit Roseville in a Division III opener.

A game ball, please, for third-year coach Alex Gomes-Coelho, who went 0-10 and 4-6 before this season. He stuck it out, as did players in an era when it’s too easy to bail.

A championship program in the late 1980s and early 1990s under coach Don Dillon and then again under Max Miller in the late mid-to-late 1990s and through 2001 under Mike Dimino, Johnson’s decline was swift and heartbreaking to alums. Hampered by low roster numbers, the Warriors went 12-70 from 2009-17 with two 0-10 teams and four 1-9 teams. Johnson has one of the area’s top running backs in Doreion Akins, who has rushed for 1,376 yards and 23 touchdowns, and it has enjoyed its sparkling new field this season.

Basking in blue

Davis at 9-1 is coming off its first Delta League championship since the Dave Whitmire-coached bunch of 1995, which is also the last time the Blue Devils won a playoff game.

The last time Davis had a record close to this was in 1983, when the Marc Hicks-led Blue Devils had their 10-0 season dashed in the mud in a Division I playoff opener, losing 11-10 to McClatchy and star runner Donald Hair. Davis was 0-10 two years ago, brought back coach Steve Smyte for another run, and here he is, booming of good cheer before, during and after games – and it led to a Delta League championship.

Smyte has unleashed backs such as Taylor Vaughn behind standout linemen such as the 6-foot-9 Gerad Lichtenhan and the 5-11 Patton Miller. The Blue Devils host Gregori of Modesto in a D-I opener. And what’s a playoff without some fresh faces? Predictable.

From winless to boundless

From 0-10 a year ago and thoughts of “never again!” to sudden dark-horse status, beware Pleasant Grove and Whitney.

Pleasant Grove and coach Matt Costa overcame injuries to go 6-4 and will play at Monterey Trail in a D-I opener of one-time Delta rivals. Costa a year ago had a hard time getting out of bed, agonizing over the losses.

Whitney and coach Zac McNally used early wins over Placer and Del Oro to muscle into the playoffs at 4-6 and face Lincoln in a D-II opener in what figures to be a Placer County thriller.

Lincoln, with defensive bruisers Grady Manley and Jacob Wagner, beat Whitney 22-17 this season.

Sustained success

Why is Del Oro with Division III enrollment of 1,715 in the D-I scramble with a road game at Turlock? Success.

Section member schools long ago voted in a rule that teams that have overwhelming success in one division will move up in division, such as Central Catholic (now in D-II) and Bradshaw Christian (now in D-V). And Del Oro. The Golden Eagles have gone 29-3 in D-II section play this decade with six section banners, including last season.

It goes both ways. If Del Oro does not fare well in D-I over a period of time, it will drop down in division.

One cool cat

All he does is inject new life and hope with a detail on fundamentals and simplicity.

After winning section championships in San Jose and at Pleasant Grove and elevating Sheldon last season, Joe Cattolico in his first season at Roseville has the Tigers looming as a threat, especially after pushing 10-0 Inderkum to the wire in a 21-14 loss last week.

All in

How in the world does an entire league get into the playoffs? In the case of the Foothill Valley League, simple: strength of league and overall computer-formula success.

Now it’s time for the FVL to back it up as Rio Linda is the top seed in D-IV as the defending champion, Placer is the No. 2 seed in D-III a year after losing a tight title game to Capital Christian, with Ponderosa, Lincoln, Oakmont and Nevada Union also in the mix.

Oakmont is in the playoffs for the first time since 2003 and last won a playoff game in 2002, and Nevada Union is in the postseason for the first time since 2012, last winning in 2009 when then-coach Dave Humphers led the Miners to a D-I championship over Monterey Trail.

Health matters

Granite Bay is in the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive time, the second-best streak in section history to Grant’s 27. The Grizzlies (4-6) are rounding back into health after skill guys and those in the trenches missed time, though coach Jeff Evans kept it all together with sheer will and depth.

If you think Downey of Modesto is grumbling for having to travel to Placer County in a D-II opener with a 7-3 record, imagine the angst if Granite Bay unleashes healthy bodies. The Grizzlies seek their eighth section banner. Downey is also healthy and fears no one, having beat Grant in a playoff opener a year ago.

Bulldog bite

Top seeded in D-I and hungry for more, Folsom has won nine consecutive section playoff games and 28 of 29.

The Bulldogs are a gaudy 32-2 in the playoffs this decade with seven section banners, five in D-I and two in D-II. Though quite a few fans and followers (and some coaches) grumble in suggesting all of the success is rooted to incoming freshmen or transfers, the foundation of Folsom’s success is rooted in its youth feeder programs. Do the transfers help? Of course, but each has been cleared.

The Bulldogs have five D-I titles, tying them with Cordova and Elk Grove. Folsom can stand alone with a championship this year.

Rising power

Two years ago, in his first season as Capital Christian coach following 15 glorious seasons at Del Oro, Casey Taylor soaked in an opening-round playoff loss to Bear River, saying the setback will jump start things.

Good call, coach. Capital Christian went 13-1 last season, won its first D-III section crown after winning smaller-school titles and bounds into this postseason top-seeded again in D-III after a gritty win Friday over Vista del Lago.

Seeking All-Metro nominations

Kindly send us your All-League and Bee All-Metro nominations by email at jdavidson@sacbee.com by the end of next week. Players who do not get nominated have no chance of making The Bee’s All-Metro first, second or honorable mention teams.

You ask, we answer

We will answer questions from readers, coaches, fans – anonymously or otherwise – about football teams, players, transfers, fairness, realignment, top players in a story this week after our first mailbag was a rousing success.

Email to jdavidson@sacbee.com or csalerno@sacbee.com by Tuesday night.

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.