Joe Davidson

Herd is the word on Thanksgiving football playoff preparation week

Elk Grove players get pumped at a game between the Thundering Herd and Grant on Friday, Sept. 30, at Elk Grove High School. Elk Grove plays at Folsom on Friday in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal.
Elk Grove players get pumped at a game between the Thundering Herd and Grant on Friday, Sept. 30, at Elk Grove High School. Elk Grove plays at Folsom on Friday in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal.

It’s a brotherhood amid a sea of sparkling gold helmets here.

Members of the Elk Grove High School football team eagerly met this week for practices: to block and tackle, to pass and catch, to plot and scheme.

It’s a treat to practice on Thanksgiving Day because it means the season still has legs. Seeded fourth, Elk Grove (11-1) plays at top-seeded Folsom (11-1) on Friday night in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal, looking to exact a measure of revenge from previous playoff setbacks to the Bulldogs, including last season in a final that went to the wire.

And Thanksgiving morning workouts presented the opportunity for the hungry Herd to devour the prized breakfast burritos prepared by one of several “Team Moms” in Shelly Loller, wife of offensive-line coach Moe Loller.

Coach Loller’s line proudly goes by “Hammerheads.” They live to push the blocking sled across the grass turf near the school stadium, and when that unit succeeds on game night, so, too, do the Herd. Linebacker Jake Bellecci ran the defense in sessions, a thinker who can hit. He’s a four-year starter in a sport that just doesn’t see that very often.

Jayden Machado is the Herd’s poised and precise left-handed quarterback. He fired darts to favorite target Gavin Reinwald, who snatches footballs with the same zest as one snatches the last drum stick on this holiday.

“When we’re on the field like this, we’re pure family,” Machado said. “Pure brothers. I enjoy every minute of this. I get the most joy being with these guys, working hard, getting better, getting wins.”

The wins have been abundant. Machado helped steer the run-heavy Herd to a 13-1 record last fall under coach Chris Nixon, who has peeled off seasons in succession of 12-1, 12-2, 12-2, 10-3, 13-1 and 11-1. And like any town that feeds on festive football fun, Elk Grove’s core players have grown up through the ranks, learning in youth feeder programs.

Elk Grove has towered as a football juggernaut for decades, having reached a section final in four consecutive seasons. But it has not won a section championship since 2001. There’s a sense of urgency this season.

“I’m extremely proud of this team,” said Nixon, the offensive coordinator for Herd section-title teams in 1997, ’98 and 2001. “Most of them I’ve known since Junior Herd, and they’ve always taken a ‘slay the giant’ approach to the bigger programs, the bigger schools. A four seed fits us perfectly.

“Machado and Reinwald are two of the most competitive players I’ve been around, yet two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet off the field. Their focus is always on their team, which includes those Hammerheads. There were a few years when we didn’t bother teaching the Hammerheads the concept of the forward pass. They saw Jayden throwing to Gavin and Bellecci and (Jonas) Mcmillan, and we had to tell them, ‘Yep. That’s legal.’ So they added pass protection to the résumé.”

Also dotting the program’s résumé is the amount of players competing in college, be it large programs or small, including four-year starting offensive lineman Steven Moore at Cal and second-year starting Sacramento State defensive back Manny Scott-Anderson. Among the Herd players being recruited this season are Reinwald, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior with a 4.0 GPA. He overpowers defenses in one-on-one coverage or in open space. He has 56 receptions for 902 yards and 17 touchdowns. Machado has passed for 2,143 yards and 35 touchdowns.

“Sometimes out there, it’s man vs. boy,” Machado said.

Reinwald credited his teammates and especially his quarterback, saying what Machado has done of late is “insane.”

Machado has been on a tear the last month. In the last four games, all victories, the 6-1, 195-pound senior has completed 63 of 72 passes – with seven drops – for 948 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has found Reinwald for 10 touchdowns in that stretch.

“They’re amazing,” Folsom coach Kris Richardson said of Machado and Reinwald. “We’ll have our hands full.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

Related stories from Sacramento Bee