Joe Davidson

Placer football’s dream season heads to state finals after improbable regional title

Coach Joey Montoya’s Placer Hillmen capped an improbable comeback against Salinas with a 43-42 overtime victory on Friday for the Northern California Regional Division IV-AA championship.
Coach Joey Montoya’s Placer Hillmen capped an improbable comeback against Salinas with a 43-42 overtime victory on Friday for the Northern California Regional Division IV-AA championship. Sacramento Bee file

Joey Montoya was too wired to sleep Friday night.


The Placer High School football coach also feared that he would awake only to realize what transpired in Monterey County was a dream. But this dream season refuses to end.

Montoya was as stunned as anyone when his plucky Hillmen trailed 21-0 at Salinas in the Northern California Regional Division IV-AA championship, and then when they were down 27-7. When Placer capped the improbable comeback against the Central Coast Section Open Division I champion with a 43-42 overtime victory, there were mixed expressions of relief and astonishment.

The coach learned a lot about his young bunch – the Hillmen start four seniors – and just how unpredictable this sport remains. No lead is safe, and unsung players can turn games.

For Placer, that included Brad Bishop. He blocked a field goal, caught a 53-yard touchdown pass from Michael Stuck and caught a two-point conversion to help push the game into overtime. Marshall Chapman had three rushing touchdowns, Ryan Meyer made the decisive extra point and Salinas missed its PAT, and there you have it.

What also made the triumph so striking is the difference in enrollment. Salinas has 2,600 students and Placer 1,399. Normally, coaches shriek at such a discrepancy, because fans certainly do, but the CIF has gone with a competitive equality model in lining up title games. In most instances, the regional games have been competitive.

Montoya is just glad to still have practices on his weathered dirt field.

“Right?” Montoya said emphatically on how wild the game was. “What a game. I’m proud of the resolve and heart of our players and coaches. Incredible game. I was exhausted but in a great way. I was no doubt thinking about my family, an emotional surreal feeling.”

Family matters to Montoya. He grew up on the ballfields in Auburn, a product of Placer High. He is the son of a coach (Joe Montoya) and the grandson of an iconic one (Bill Miller).

It was Miller who with co-coach Tom Johnson jump-started the Hillmen in the 1970s after relocating from Southern California, leading the program to five Sac-Joaquin Section championships, the last in 1981. Placer’s 1977 and ’80 teams finished No. 1 in the state Division II rankings by Cal-Hi Sports, well before the CIF launched the state playoffs in 2006. Miller was an innovator, introducing Placer County to strength and conditioning programs in an era when coaches feared weightlifting would make their athletes bulky and slow.

Miller conceived the concept of seven-on-seven offseason drills so quarterbacks could work with skill players against others. He also was the region’s first coach to take a team out of their comfort zone for early season games against state powers down south, such as Mission Viejo. And a coach is a coach. Miller’s greatest feat might be what he did with the Placer girls tennis teams. Despite never playing the sport, Miller led the Hillgals to nine section team championships. Montoya learned from Miller how to mold teams, inspire them.

“My dad is still very involved, comes to every game, texts me notes, comes to practice, and he never grows out of it,” Montoya said. “And the first call I get on Saturday mornings is from my grandfather. Makes my heart feel good.”

If the four-hour bus trip to Salinas was a trek, then imagine what looms. Placer (13-1) will play the winner of Saturday night’s Southern California Regional Division IV-AA final between El Camino-Oceanside and Crenshaw-Los Angeles. That could mean up to a tidy 500-mile, nine-hour trip.

At this point, Montoya and the Hillmen would drive south of the border to Baja for a game.

High on Helix – Folsom beat the best team in Fresno and the Central Section on Friday to win the Division I-AA regional, topping Central 54-35, and it now readies for the top team in San Diego.

Helix of La Mesa followed up its section Open Division win over Mission Hills with a 28-13 triumph of Oaks Christian of Westlake Village. Among the alums of Helix are NBA great Bill Walton and USC Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, who was on the Helix sideline on Friday.

Helix (13-1) is led by UC Davis-bound quarterback Carson Baker, who has tossed 31 touchdowns. Baker’s position coach is Matt Stevens, who quarterbacked UCLA to a Rose Bowl win in 1986 and still does color commentary for the Bruins.

Helix beat Del Oro 35-24 to win the CIF State Division II championship in 2011 to cap a 13-1 season.

All-League insanity – An all-league team in football used to consist of no more than 25 players. Now, in an era where everyone wins a participation prize, we have the All-Delta League.

No doubt, it’s an elite league, but 122 players making first and second team and honorable mention comes across as excessive. The first team alone features 48 players. Delta champion Jesuit landed all but four starters on the teams. Some regional all-league teams included six first-team quarterbacks for a seven-member league and 18 first-team linemen.

With that, we will unveil The Bee’s 1,500-person All-Metro team after the CIF State championships. OK, more like a 26-player first team to start.

Coaches who haven’t done so are encouraged to send All-Metro nominations to

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

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