Travis Barker can’t seem to squeeze in enough time for his other outdoor passion.
The East Nicolaus High School football coach likes to camp out in seclusion, surrounded by brush, water and nature, well away from the football grind of the weight room, practice and games. Barker fancies himself as a decent duck hunter, even when the feathered foes don’t fly about for a shotgun target, explaining that the calm environment soothes a cluttered brain.
Barker was ready to slow down last winter when his Spartans team cornered him and offered a counter proposal. Open the weight room, play some music, listen to the clang of metal, smell the sweat and build another champion.
The coach caved. The kids worked, he supervised, and together, they produced the program’s fourth successive Northern Section Division IV champion.
Now more waiting: The Spartans on Sunday will learn their opponent for a CIF Northern California Regional championship. It will be their third consecutive NorCal title game appearance with the aim of winning their second state championship since 2015.
“Here I was ready to finish out duck season and the guys got mad at me,” Barker recalled with a laugh. “They wanted to get started. They wanted in that weight room, and to work on football agility and speed training. I thought, ‘Man, I created this monster and now I’ve gotta live it!’ ”
East Nicolaus High is located in the heart of Sutter County, some 25 miles north of Sacramento, the very embodiment of big dreams at a small-school in a prideful town, where agriculture and athletics can shape a regional mood. In Trowbridge, it’s often all about family, farming and football, and pick your own order. Spartans players sometimes wear boots from morning chores on the farm in the weight room, or in Barker’s wood and metal shop classes.
Barker was one of them once. He grew up in the region, played fullback and linebacker on East Nicolaus’ first section championship team in 1991 under Geoff Wahl, who coached the Spartans for 35 years, ending in 1998, winning 211 games. The school stadium bears Wahl’s name.
Barker graduated from Nevada and applied for one teaching and coaching job – East Nic in 1998. He has no plans to leave.
Where else can one find teaching, coaching and duck hunting all so closely connected? Barker said he feels right at home, marveling at the perks such as a school sponsor that has an end zone sign that reads, “Moe’s Crop Dusting Service.”
East Nicolaus is 38-3 the last three seasons, but the Spartans (13-0) didn’t know what they had this season with graduation gutting the core of the roster.
“We lost great players, and we thought entering this season, ‘Oh, boy. This could be a tough one,’ ” Barker said. “But the kids are so scrappy, so proud. They don’t quit. They’re incredibly self-driven. They don’t have to be motivated by me yelling at them. It’s really something.
“These kids have really lived a dream. Look at some of their lettermen’s jackets. Not many schools can match it. They have three section championship patches, multiple all-league patches, a CIF State title patch. And we want more. We’re a bunch of old Oakies going for it.”
The “Oakies” include quarterback Gavin McAuliff, who has passed for 1,373 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushed for 698 and nine scores. Running back Mauricio Bautista has run for 866 yards and 18 touchdowns and Corey Taylor has gone for 1,221 and 14. Linebacker Dyllan Hyde has 161 tackles, making 15 stops a game.
East Nicolaus has won 32 consecutive games against Northern Section opposition and has won 10 section crowns in 21 title-game appearances. Wahl won all of his five titles in the 1990s. Now in his 80s, he texts Barker regularly, offering encouragement and wisdom. But never suggesting a duck hunt.
CIF announcement – All section champions earn NorCal Regional bids, unless they turn it down. That happened in the Northern Section after Chester beat Fall River 50-26 for the D-V championship and elected to finish 11-1 rather than take a 9-hour bus drive to the Bay Area or Fresno for a Regional game.
The CIF will announce by noon on Sunday the Regional matchups. The CIF State finals for the upper divisions will be Dec. 15-16 at Sacramento State with lower divisions at home sites.