Joe Davidson

Folsom football feels ‘ambushed’ by effort to exile it from its league. Is it fair?

The Folsom Bulldogs have been ready for anything thrown at them in the area’s best high school football league — except for an unprecedented effort to have them exiled from it.

At a recent Sierra Foothill League meeting, a monthly discussion of various sports and budgets, the last item on the agenda was Folsom football: competitive equity and safety.

“We felt ambushed,” said Bobby Fresques, Folsom assistant football coach and assistant athletic director, of the Sept. 19 meeting in Granite Bay. “These schools have been talking about this, and we didn’t know. They had data such as point differential, transfers, concerns of safety, if we’re running up the score, padding stats. You can only take so much of this criticism before you say something back.”

Do the Bulldogs have too much snarl and bite for their competition? Many SFL coaches and administrators have suggested that Folsom at some point be removed from the SFL and classified as an independent, to take on a national schedule to fit Folsom’s soaring profile of success.

In other words, pick on someone your own size.

“Folsom is so good, it’s from a different planet now, completely out of this atmosphere, and teams around here can’t compete, and sometimes it becomes a safety issue because you have teams going up against guys who are major recruits,” said Rocklin coach Greg Benzel, whose team lost to Folsom by seven touchdowns on Sept. 28.

“I don’t want to be a person who sounds like sour milk,” Benzel said. “We’ve had our success here. Folsom’s earned everything they’ve got with darn good coaches and a program that has attracted a lot of great athletes, but I think this should be addressed. Will I say I’d never play them again? I will say that I don’t know if I want to play them next year.”

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Said Granite Bay coach Jeff Evans, “No doubt Folsom should play independent. What they are doing is not high school football, not public high school football, anyway. I have been around public high school football my entire life and what they are doing and achieving is unnatural.

“It is not sour grapes. We can all handle losing because we are in this for more than just wins, but something has to be done.”

SFL coaches point to De La Salle of Concord as an example of going to an independent schedule, to allow existing league members a chance to win a league championship. The nationally renowned Spartans went to an independent schedule 20 years ago — and wanted to as Bay Area teams could not compete with the private school.

Folsom has emerged as a public-school power this decade, one in which it has won 118 games and lost just 10, with six Sac-Joaquin Section championships and three CIF State banners, including last season for a 16-0 team.

Sixteen starters returned from that team for Folsom, which has plowed through the SFL this fall, beating then No. 2-ranked Oak Ridge 62-6 and Rocklin 48-0 with Whitney, Granite Bay, Grant and Del Oro remaining. The Bulldogs have won 26 consecutive SFL games since entering the league in 2013, winning by an average score of 48-10.

“The average margin, 48-10, means a running clock just about every time,” said Rocklin athletic director Ryan Spears. “We’re looking for competitive equity in our league. We’ve been a great league for a long time with schools that have reached or won section titles or won CIF state championships — Del Oro, Granite Bay, Oak Ridge, Grant.

“Folsom is just a different beast. We’re a proud football program, too, but this is something that needs to be talked about.”

No public school football program has gone independent in the history of the section. Such a move would require SFL-member voter approval, including from Folsom. But the Bulldogs want to stay in the league that is known for its sellout crowds, which provide an atmosphere for players, students and fans.

Folsom principal Howard Cadenhead, who represents the SFL on the CIF board of managers, said: “I understand the concern and the responsibility of the SFL administrators and athletic directors, but of course, I would not agree with any proposal to make Folsom football independent. Since we are not going to vote to become independent, I don’t believe any proposal made by the SFL would get to the CIF.”

Only preliminary discussions have been had at the league level, and no formal proposal has been introduced.

Folsom coaches said they feel they are under siege. Attacks questioning the means and methods of their success escalated this week on social media, including by some within the Rocklin community. It only fans the flames, said Folsom head coach Kris Richardson.

“To all of a sudden want to vote us out because we’ve been so good just seems wrong,” Richardson said. “Yeah, we take it personal. All we’re doing is playing good, hard football. We haven’t done anything wrong. We don’t run up the score.

“People forget that it wasn’t that long ago where we scrambled just to be competitive. We never complained when we got our teeth kicked in. We worked to get better.”

He added, “Not a single SFL coach has asked me about any of this, not a word. That’s disappointing. I hear it from principals, and that’s just not right.”

At the root of the issue is what SFL members deem unfair advantages for Folsom, The Bee’s top-ranked team for all but one week since the start of the 2012 season.

With open enrollment, Folsom can draw student-athletes from outside its district, which is not uncommon across the state but is within the SFL. Among the league’s seven members, Del Oro and Grant are the only others with open enrollment.

“Folsom isn’t breaking rules, but Folsom has a different set of rules than the rest of us,” Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere said. “The open enrollment issue is big. We can’t take any kids into our school unless they live in El Dorado Hills. I think Folsom should go independent. We’d still want to play them in a regular-season game because that’s still a big game for us. But the gap between No. 1 Folsom and the rest of the area has never been bigger — ever.”

Some SFL coaches bristle that Folsom’s best players are not homegrown. Three of the Bulldogs’ stars, quarterback Kaiden Bennett and brothers Daniyel and Joe Ngata, are from Reno. They enrolled at Folsom before their freshman seasons after their families moved and have become perhaps the region’s greatest collection of skill players on one team.

Joe Ngata, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior wide receiver, has committed to 2017 national champion Clemson. Daniyel Ngata, an electric junior athlete, has more than a dozen scholarship offers, including from Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan and Pacific-12 Conference schools. Bennett, The Bee’s 2017 Offensive Player of the Year as a junior, has passed for 24 touchdowns and two interceptions in six games this season.

Ray Ngata and Derek Bennett said they moved to Folsom to give their sons the best chance at academic and athletic success.

Folsom received another injection of talent from Reno this season. Chandon Pierre, a 6-3, 255-pound senior defensive end, led Nevada in sacks as a sophomore and junior at Bishop Manogue. Pierre’s family moved to Folsom in February, but because it was not deemed a full-family move, CIF transfer rules required him to sit out until the Sept. 28 game against Rocklin.

Some SFL coaches and athletic directors question the inordinate amount of players at Folsom, at all levels, they contend were not with the program last season. But Folsom disputes any notion it has a high number of transfers. The section’s website shows Folsom has five total for junior varsity and varsity.

“Yeah, we’ve got great athletes, and we get some transfers, but everyone gets transfers,” Richardson, Folsom’s head coach, said. “We’ve lost really good players to other schools, and we wish them well. And we hear it all the time about some of our players, ‘Oh, he didn’t grow up in Folsom.’

“People on social media and everywhere else should just shut up when talking about 16- or 17-year-old kids. It’s just really dumb.”

Folsom’s three CIF State championship teams this decade featured a majority of players who grew up in the program, starting with the youth Folsom Junior Bulldogs, which has been dominant for 15 years.

“I’m not knocking on doors to hustle kids. I’m not driving around Reno to recruit kids,” Richardson said. “I teach PE. I tell freshmen and sophomores all the time to come play football. Yeah, we get incoming freshmen and some play football.

“If a kid is enrolled at Folsom and cleared to play, rubber-stamped by the CIF, then I’ll coach the heck out of him. I’ve never met a coach anywhere who wouldn’t do the same thing and isn’t doing that right now.”

Not everyone outside of Folsom feels that the Bulldogs should leave the SFL.

Grant athletic director Carl Reed, an assistant coach for the Pacers, wants Folsom to stay.

“Folsom’s a public school, and we were that school one time — dominant,” Reed said. “It’s a cycle. Many public schools have good runs. Eventually, you rely on kids in your own district. Hell, Folsom returns its entire team from from last year and you should expect them to dominate.”

Solution, Coach Reed? “Beat ’em!”

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