It was Labor Day, and T.J. Ewing was in his element – leading, instructing, encouraging.
At Monterey Trail High School, Ewing, who launched the program when the school opened on Power Inn Road in 2004, continues to prove small rosters can achieve big things.
Ewing, a barrel-chested 45-year-old San Mateo native, is known to coach his players hard and hug them even harder. Labor Day’s practice included a lot of heavy lifting. Players engaged in a hitting drill, and the one who lost had to give the teammate a piggyback ride to midfield and back.
“Much better than sprints or gassers,” Ewing said with a laugh. “We like to mix in a little fun here. Football is serious enough as it is. Piggybacks are fun. Look at those guys. We’re a goofy program. We’re not a conventional high school team, and we like that.”
Unconventional in that the Mustangs compete for championships despite rosters of 25 to 28 players when most successful programs have twice as many. Unconventional in that the Mustangs are one of the few teams in the state to use the run-heavy veer. And unconventional in that after touchdowns the Mustangs generally go for two points – a running play – late in games to force tempo, having beaten Folsom, Elk Grove and other ranked opponents this way in recent years.
Led by a punishing running game and an equally punishing defense, Monterey Trail, with 28 players this season, is 2-0 and ranked No. 12 in The Sacramento Bee’s Top 20. The Mustangs have beaten Wilcox of Santa Clara 40-14 and Del Campo 48-21.
Ewing said he can explain the small rosters, the norm throughout his tenure, which had a humble start (an 18-game losing streak his first two seasons) before a swift rise to prominence (a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title-game appearance in 2009, a section championship in 2010 and a section semifinal berth in 2014). Football is a grind, he said, not a pleasure ride – piggybacks or otherwise.
“Football is hard work, but it offers 10,000 rewards,” Ewing said. “You’ve got to sacrifice and suffer to excel. We’ve suffered and sacrificed here, and we’ve grown from it. This is how life is. You can’t learn, can’t get better, if things are easy. So we coach them up, love them up and go for it.”
Ewing paused, scanning the field of players, before continuing.
“We’re OK with the numbers we have,” he said. “This is normal for us. We’ll always keep a kid who gives us great effort. We won’t beg kids to come out, especially since this is a violent sport. You’ve got to want to play this sport. It’s not for everyone. And the intimacy of a small classroom is ideal for teaching, and football is teaching.”
Ewing’s primary lessons are to care, be prepared and be in shape. The Mustangs anticipated passes from Del Campo, and Bishop Brown and William Madsen returned interceptions for touchdowns. And the Mustangs pride themselves on conditioning.
“Coach Ewing runs us to death in practices,” Brown said. “We don’t cut guys. Our workouts are so rigorous that guys cut themselves. If you can’t roll with us during practice, how can you roll with us during games?”
Quarterback Robert Holt is a three-year varsity starter who also excels in the secondary. He plays four sports because “it’s the thing to do.”
“I love being a Mustang and want to be as involved as I can,” said Holt, a 3.5 student who wants to study kinesiology in college. “It’s all about work here. And it starts with coach Ewing. He’s the wild one, the fun one. He can be harsh, then joke, then harsh again, and then finish with a joke. He’s the reason we’re successful, why we believe in ourselves.”
Ewing was a standout lineman in at Aragon High School in San Mateo, College of San Mateo and Eastern Washington.
He coached San Mateo High to the 2003 Central Coast Section Division III championship, a game watched by Terry Chapman, the incoming principal at Monterey Trail who was looking for a unique coach to help creature a culture. Chapman was principal at the school until his retirement in 2007, though he’s back on an interim basis.
“I wanted a coach who would understand our community and be able to associate and mix with them, and we found him,” Chapman said. “I was convinced he was our guy. He’s big on life skills. The school culture is important to T.J. and he really enhances and insists on an inclusive and progressive culture where kids feel good, comfortable and safe.”
Ewing lives for this, saying, “This is family here. I bring my three young kids out to practice, all this open space, and they love it. They run, hit the bags, hit each other. It’s football, and it’s fun.”
FRIDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
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