‘A tremendous ride’: Placer coach Joey Montoya on what defines the Hillmen
Life balance for Joey Montoya comes in small doses.
The Placer High School coach is often consumed with crafting a game plan around athletes tipping the scales at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds. Twice a week, his focus shifts for an hour to two giggling 3-footers. Montoya’s daughters parade into his office, usually in dresses that don’t exactly fit a place that has the charm of a muffler shop.
Montoya watches videos — not football — with 4-year-old Blayke and 2-year-old Brooklyn as they dine on snacks fitting for young queens. The girls play hide-and-seek when they’re not scribbling on the white board.
“I’ve learned to time manage better, to keep family first, and I go from football testosterone here to home and princess dresses,” Montoya said, adding that he’s done his share of braiding hair and painting nails. “You can’t survive as a coach at any level if you don’t find the right wife, someone who understands the grind.”
Montoya’s wife, Megan, is a girls soccer coach at Placer and understands perfectly, he said.
“You either stop coaching and lose a great passion in your life, or you end up getting divorced,” Montoya said. “It’s the reality of our profession.”
When football and life intersect
Football binds the Montoya family outside of the home much as it does for a lot of players on the 48-man roster and an army of coaches, many of whom once wore the colors of Placer. And football has for decades been a social epicenter in an Auburn community that has followed the Hillmen since they won their first league championship in 1903.
Placer returned 17 starters from last season, which ended with a heartbreaking 46-43 loss in the CIF State Division IV-AA final. The 3-0 Hillmen are ranked fourth by The Bee, their highest such ranking since finishing state-ranked No. 1 in Division II by Cal-Hi Sports in 1980.
Montoya creates a family atmosphere, providing structure and discipline while dealing with circumstances on and off the field. Concerns over home life — if a student has enough to eat, has a way to get to school — are not specific to city programs. It’s the reality for many teams.
“We have kids who come from very tough situations, difficult home lives, financial turmoil, suicide fears, you name it,” Montoya said. “Football helps keep them involved, motivated. They need it.”
Montoya’s mission in life is to help. On Sundays, he hosts a congregation of about 50 for Bible study at his home. Family trips to Mexico and Guatemala have been spent helping build homes for the needy.
“We visited an orphanage there (in Guatemala) and held babies that had never been held and loved before,” Montoya said.
At Placer, hugs can also comfort.
Andrew Garza confided in Montoya before last season about living homeless and hungry. A senior linebacker, Garza has stability now and credits football “for saving me.”
Garza played motivated last fall, right down to the biggest play of the season. He exploded into the left guard of Salinas High on a last-play field goal attempt, thus forcing the kick to sail wide.
That allowed Placer to win the Northern California Division IV-AA championship, putting the Hillmen into the state finals.
Old school, new talent
Placer’s players revel in the chance to play home games in front of generations of fans, and to go home with dirt and grass stains in an era of field turf. And they run the throwback wing-T offense, heavy on the run.
“It all fits our old-school image perfectly,” Montoya said.
Some players are the sons of former Placer stars. Quarterback Michael Stuck’s father, Greg, was a tight end and linebacker for Placer’s 11-0 team in 1980. Others have parents who grew up in other countries. Fullback Hans Grassman, of German roots, fits Placer’s smash-mouth approach with his 6-2, 225-pound frame.
The junior rumbled for 309 yards and five touchdowns last Friday in a win over Bishop Manogue of Nevada. Teammates Brad Bishop and Marshall Chapman rushed for 148 and 126 yards, respectively.
“We love the wing-T,” Grassman said. “There’s faking, deception, key blocking. We just want to move the ball. It’s not often teams have two Division I tackles, so that helps.”
Those tackles are Joey Capra and Blake Baughman, field-tilting, shadow-casting seniors at 6-5 and a combined 535 pounds.
Capra is headed to Oregon on scholarship, where his brother Jacob plays in the trenches (another brother, Johnny, starts on the line at Utah). Baughman is off to Nevada.
“So many of us have known each other since we were little,” Baughman said. “We’re just having a blast.”
‘We have it all here’
Montoya grew up as a waterboy and ballboy on these fields. His grandfather, Bill Miller, led the Hillmen (along with co-coach Tom Johnson) during the glory days of the 1970s when the program won five Sac-Joaquin Section championships.
Miller introduced his grandson to Dave Humphers, then the coach at Nevada Union, in 2000, three years after graduating from Placer. In short order, Montoya was leading the Miners in spirited drills, and a career was launched.
Montoya became Pioneer High’s varsity head coach in 2003 at age 23 and led three playoff teams at the Woodland school, including going 10-1 in 2005.
Then he landed his dream gig — home — in 2007. Earlier this season, Montoya won his 100th game with the Hillmen. But the first year was a bear, a 3-7 campaign where little seemed to go right.
“Yeah, there was pressure that first year,” Montoya said. “Not many jobs out there where everyone can see you on display. But it got better.”
Much better. Montoya has led 10 successive playoff teams. His Hillmen have won eight league championships and played in four section championship games. He credits the effort of his players, the support on campus and the community — and especially his coaching staff.
Assistant coaches who also teach on campus include Dennis Murphy, Dean Pietromonaco, Eric Rodarte, Mike Sabins and Bowman Wachob. Sabins was the school’s head coach before Montoya and doubles as activities director. He delights in being able to coach his son, lineman Jackson Sabins.
“We have it all here,” Montoya said. “I tell people I’m living a dream. Some think I’m joking, that it’s just a line, but I’m telling the truth wholeheartedly.”
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