Joe Davidson

‘We wanted to burn down the school’: New Whitney football coach helps right the ship

Interim coach Jesse Armas addresses the Whitney Wildcats after defeating Davis on Friday night.
Interim coach Jesse Armas addresses the Whitney Wildcats after defeating Davis on Friday night. Whitney High School

Jesse Armas had his football life turned upside down, too.

It wasn’t just the Whitney High School players, parents, campus and community that was jolted emotionally last week, there was Armas. He went from offensive line coach – obscurity in the trenches – to sudden head coach tasked with providing calm in the wake of a seismic shift within the program.

Popular coach Paul Doherty was asked by his administration to resign Aug. 19 after his team was tagged for a fifth practice/contact violation in 2 1/2 years, all minor infractions but major in totality. It cost the Wildcats a playoff appearance this season as punishment by the Sac-Joaquin Section. Whitney principal Justin Cutts, already pained by relieving Doherty, a friend, turned to Armas to steady the ship, which could either plow forward, all systems go, or go Titanic.

Armas accepted the gig. The Spanish teacher on campus immediately got his team’s attention with spirited post-practice discussion Thursday as he urged the captains to be leaders in a time of crisis. The Wildcats responded with a 50-28 victory at Davis as Preston Eklund passed for four touchdowns and ran for one, and Jason Sanchez rushed for two scores.

“It was pretty emotional,” Armas said Saturday afternoon. “I’m an emotional dude as it is, and I had no voice after the game. I teared up. The kids came up to congratulate me, and they’ve taken me in. The kids have been awesome. The school has been awesome. The community has been amazing with so much support that it’s overwhelming.”

The Rocklin community is urging Whitney to reinstate Doherty, which would only happen after the season, if at all. The thinking is that a coaching staff is stronger in numbers: the more on-campus help, the better.

“I told our players that it’s not about any of us coaches now, it’s about them,” Armas said. “We’re family. We’re in this together. We had one of our former players come by, Austin Wentworth, who played at Fresno State and in the NFL, and he gave a great speech. When his college coach (Pat Hill) was fired a few years ago, he said, ‘we wanted to burn down the school!’ That’s your immediate reaction when you lose a coach.

“We knew we could come together or fold. I was telling everyone, ‘Thank goodness it gets easier,’ not because we’re playing Granite Bay next, but because I get to settle into the role. I don’t have to deal with so many distractions.”

Armas is a Woodland native. He played sports and got his coaching start there. He was a lineman under one-time Woodland coach Mike Gimenez, who brought him on the coaching staff at Whitney nine years ago after founding the football program in 2003.

Leo and Paula Armas taught their son the value of hard work. Leo works as a machine operator during harvest season in Yolo County and Paula is a cook at Cache Creek Casino Resort.

“They work their butts off,” Jesse Armas said.

Armas’ life has changed at home, too. More calls, more texts, more film work, some of it into the wee hours. He said wife Jenny has been “so supportive and understanding.”

“Been so busy that she’s even doing the dishes, and that’s usually my job since she feeds this old O-line coach,” Armas said. “I always wash the dishes and put on Mexican music, but this week, she did it all. She played Bobby Brown and oldies.”

Smashing debut – Brennan McFadden wanted to boost his coaching staff and the fortunes of his program, so the River Valley coach brought in an old mentoring friend.

With his Nevada Union coach Dave Humphers by his side as a co-coach, River Valley pulled the biggest upset of opening night. Implementing a wing-T offense that led to 190 career wins at NU and multiple championships for Humphers, River Valley beat No. 15 Cosumnes Oaks 42-27, outgaining the Wolfpack 444-207 and limiting them to 34 yards rushing.

The Falcons are led by quarterback Dawson McPeak and receiver Nick Barnes, returning starters who last year learned the hard way the pains of a 3-7 season that started with a 28-0 loss at Cosumnes Oaks.

Debut win – Sammie Stroughter has played in a lot of big games, from Granite Bay High to Oregon State and a bit in the NFL as a receiver. Now he savors another one.

Rio Americano beat Cordova 42-35 for his first head-coaching victory in his first attempt.

Rio on Sept. 7 plays McClatchy, led by one-time NFL receiver and McClatchy alum Malcolm Floyd. Can we get these guys to race off in a 40 first?

Transfer talk – Of all the transfers to dot the landscape this season, the one who made the most immediate impact was Marshaun Hunter. The former Elk Grove starter caught three of Tyler Dimino’s four first-half touchdowns in Del Campo’s 41-14 win at Merced. Hunter said he spends as much time with Dimino as he can: talking football, watching film, lifting weights.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD