If there was ever a sprint-off between this trio, it might end up in a dead heat.
Three of the fastest and most explosive high school football players in the region in 2017 wore Folsom’s blue and red, and when unleashed, the Bulldogs’ Big Three buckled opponents with waves of big-play versatility.
The efforts of Joseph Ngata, Kaiden Bennett and Tanner Ward were paramount in Folsom storming to a 16-0 season, collecting four championships along the way. Ngata, a wide receiver, return specialist and punter, is The Bee’s Player of the Year.
Bennett, a dual-threat quarterback, is The Bee’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Ward, a safety who also played linebacker, is The Bee’s Defensive Player of the Year.
It’s the first time The Bee has awarded its three top football player honors to the same team, but then again, how often do teams go 16-0? It’s been done twice in Sac-Joaquin Section history – by Folsom in 2014 and ’17.
Ngata and Bennett like to say that they are “Reno raised and Folsom forged,” and their dizzying skills and production overwhelmed defenses designed to slow them down. Ward, a Folsom native, was the heart and soul of a defense that was every bit as impressive as the more celebrated offense.
The Bee’s Coaches of the Year are Terry Logue and Scott Savoie of Bear River, which went from 3-7 a year ago to a section championship last month despite injuries and declining enrollment.
“I thought all along that Ngata was the best player arguably in all of California, and definitely in this section,” Folsom coach Kris Richardson said. “Kaiden was tremendous, and pound-for-pound, Tanner is as tough and as good of a player we’ve ever had. Just incredible players.”
They performed their best in the team’s most crucial games that seemingly came on a weekly basis. Folsom marched through the Sierra Foothill League that included regional powers Oak Ridge, Granite Bay, Rocklin and Del Oro. The Bulldogs reached a section final for a record eighth consecutive season at Sacramento State, winning it for the sixth time this decade.
Folsom rolled to CIF Northern California and State Division I-AA championships with the familiar site of Bennett finding Ngata on bubble screens or on deep strikes en route to the end zone. Ward led the defense with energy and emotion, superb in stunt blitzes or in coverage.
Bennett, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound junior, passed for 4,431 yards and 57 touchdowns and ran for 1,218 yards and 16 scores.
Ngata, a 6-4, 210-pound junior, caught 81 passes for 1,777 yards and 26 touchdowns. He didn’t carry the ball often, but his 80-yard rushing touchdown turned the game against then-No. 2 Granite Bay, leading to a 35-14 victory. In another game, Ngata returned a kickoff 99 yards, tying a national prep record, and he averaged just under 40 yards a punt.
Ngata has scholarship offers from powerhouse programs such as USC, Utah and Washington on the West Coast, Notre Dame in the Midwest and Penn State on the East Coast.
Ward, a 5-8, 170-pound senior with a 4.2 GPA, made 141 tackles this season. He can play also on special teams and as a receiver or running back.
In the state title game against Helix, Ward had a game-high nine tackles and two sacks. Bennett passed for 322 yards and four touchdowns in that contest, in addition to 139 rushing yards and two scores. Ngata ahd five catches against Helix, including a touchdown, giving him eight TDs in the final three games and 13 total in the playoffs.
“It was a fun year, a great year, but we’ve got to stay hungry because we want to win another championship next year,” Ngata said. “It’s a great feeling being on the same page with Kaiden. We just know what the other one is thinking.”
Said Bennett, “We’re really proud of what we did this year as a team. All that hard work, all those hours, all those routes we worked on, the weights, it paid off. It shows what hard work can do.
“This role is really important to me. It’s who we are. It’s our life, and I enjoy the pressure. Pressure is what life is about.”
Ward first met Bennett and Ngata three years ago during weight room sessions, and soon, the trio vowed to win championships.
“My entire life, since I was 5, football has given me so much,” Ward said. “It’s what I know, and football has taught me so much about life. And all my life, people have doubted me in football, but just because you’re shorter, doesn’t mean you can’t strap it up and get after it. And that’s what we all did.”