The football coaches are fixtures on campus, in their communities and in the minds of players who revere them.
The games are played on real grass, meaning dirt, mud and laundry. And it means something to wear those jerseys and school colors, clean or otherwise.
Football is uniquely different at small schools nestled in communities where athletics serve as a social hub for generations of alumni. On Saturday, three programs steeped in tradition and hailing from the same Pioneer Valley League will compete for Sac-Joaquin Section championships – on a turf field in a county more than an hour away from the comforts of home.
Placer and Center meet for the Division IV banner at 6 p.m. at Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove, which follows the 1 p.m. D-V contest between Colfax and Bear River at the same venue. Somewhere, someone is plotting a truckload of dirt and grass to pour onto the fake stuff.
“I think so!” said Placer coach Joey Montoya, who played football at the Auburn school and whose grandfather Bill Miller was the famed coach during the program’s state-recognized heyday in the 1970s.
“To coach at your old school is a dream come true, beyond special. You feel like the luckiest guy on the planet. And yeah, there’s also pressure, but it’s a good pressure.”
Tony Martello can relate. A 1982 Colfax graduate and one-time football star, Martello is in his 22nd season coaching the Falcons. He is in his ninth section-title match. Martello lives for this every bit as much as his players.
“It’s more heartfelt coaching at your old school,” Martello said. “Small-town coaching is the greatest job in America.”
In Lake of the Pines and Grass Valley, Bear River is in its sixth championship game, winning the battle of attrition with small rosters, much like Colfax. Both schools have enrollments of under 600 students (Placer has 1,300).
And the growing pains were difficult. The school opened in 1986 and absorbed a lot of shots to the chin straps as a new school trying to find its footing.
“The turning point for us,” longtime co-coach Terry Logue said, “was in 1988, when Mark Hatzenbuhler of Galt came to our place and knocked us around like a pinball. We had to change. We added more contact drills, more weight-room time, and it was either we push back and get tough or we get killed. We had one losing (season) since, and that was last year. And here we are again.”
Center is rooted in Antelope, which also has a high school of the same name.
There is pride within the program, certainly, even if there isn’t a fervent community following like that enjoyed by Bear River, Colfax and Placer.
“Our area is different,” Center assistant coach Matt Chamberlain said. “We’re not a town. We have seven pizza parlors. We don’t have that small-town spirit, something we wish we had.”
Placer opened in 1897 and won its first league championship in 1903.
The Hillmen have produced Major League Baseball talent such as Jeff Blauser, who once kicked a game-winning field goal in the 1980s to win a championship, and it boasts of an NFL player in Eddie Vanderdoes, a third-round pick last April by the Raiders. He regularly texts Montoya, who coached the defensive lineman.
Placer players started to shave their heads in the 1970s before season openers to bond, a tradition that lasted through five section banners, the last in 1981. Montoya grew up around the sport. He is in his fourth title game with the Hillmen, eager for that breakthrough with an 11-1 team that is also his youngest.
“We’re ready,” he said.
Montoya took over for Mike Sabins in 2007, and Sabins years ago came full circle to assist. He’s a Hillman to the core, a graduate of the school. Loyalty is big at the small-school level.
“It’s such a great place and it’s the center of the community, and there’s pride for everything: sports, band, drama,” said Sabins, also the school’s activities director and a proud father of a sophomore lineman on the team. “Special times.”
Numbers often define football programs, and some are telling at Colfax.
The school opened in 1959, reached the playoffs for the first time in 1982 and won its first section crown in 1986.
Martello became coach in 1996 and has 18 playoff teams and three section championships, each time with players who specialized on offense or defense. That’s old news now.
“Going platoon went out with the white buffalo,” Martello said with a laugh. “Now we adjust, and I’m truly amazed with this group, their resiliency. That’s why we coach. We had to call players up from the junior varsity and freshman teams, and folded the freshman team, just to make it work.”
At 9-3, Colfax is a win away from giving Martello his 200th victory. He credits longtime assistant coaches such as Mondo Alonzo and the players, and they all point back to Martello.
Martello said Alonzo is “the master of this program.” Alonzo was the longest-tenured teacher at Colfax, retiring from the classroom in 2011.
“Our coaches are amazing,” said Colfax tight end/linebacker Garren O’Keefe, a 4.3 student. “It’s great to play at Colfax, where the whole community knows you. There’s a lot of attention, and some pressure, too.”
Float kings to kings
In the lean days of the program in the late 1980s, Bear River often served as homecoming fodder for league opponents.
“We weren’t very good,” Logue said, “but we could sure judge a homecoming float.”
By 1991, Bear River’s rise was complete. It was state-ranked No. 1 in D-III, a status it would again reach in 1994 as a 13-0 team. The Bruins won the D-V section championship in 2014, beating Colfax, and that came after a small faction of Bear River backers urged the school to make a coaching change, tired of Logue and co-coach Scott Savoie. Bear River didn’t budge.
Last season, after 28 non-losing seasons, there were more rumblings after a 3-7 campaign. Bear River is 9-3 now.
“People talk about getting rid of coaches as if this is the NFL or college, and it’s not,” Bear River athletic director Duwaine Ganskie said. “It’s high school, and when you have two great coaches and people who invest so much, you hang onto them. They’re great for the kids and our school. You’re always happy for the kids, because this is why we do this, but every once in awhile, you really feel good for the coaches, too.”
Bear River quarterback Luke Baggett epitomizes the grit of the program. He also plays on defense and feels the welts and bruises days later. His father, Jeff Baggett, is the team’s offensive coordinator, a linebacker on Bear River’s first winning team in 1989.
“Dad’s beyond happy, and now our team is leaving a legacy, something we’ll never forget,” Luke Baggett said.