Joe Davidson

How Joe Cattolico’s old-school approach has Sheldon football aiming for new heights

Football coach Joe Cattolico, speaking with his team before a game last season, has led Sheldon High School to a 10-1 record this season which includes opening the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs Friday with a 27-14 victory over Modesto.
Football coach Joe Cattolico, speaking with his team before a game last season, has led Sheldon High School to a 10-1 record this season which includes opening the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs Friday with a 27-14 victory over Modesto. Special to The Sacramento Bee

Joe Cattolico doesn’t deny any of it.

He’s old school. He embraces football at its basic, most pure form, a proud throwback sort.

The Sheldon High School coach wouldn’t mind it if seasons ended like they did back in the rotary-phone era: after 10 weeks of play with no postseason. But the playoffs are the norm now and Cattolico rolls with it, rolling up his sleeves to seize the moment to match the zest of his student athletes and staff.

Cattolico is Bay Area raised and Princeton educated, loyal to what has worked since he started coaching as a head guy 20 years ago in San Jose. His teams have been the very definition of basic, running an I-back system as if it were 1978 all over again with off-tackle offerings that are about as subtle as a forearm to the face mask.

It still works. Sheldon, seeded fifth in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs, has fashioned a 10-game winning streak in what is fast becoming the program’s finest season, including Friday night’s 27-14 victory over 12th-seeded Modesto in a postseason opener.

Friday also marked a program record for victories in a season for a school that opened in the Elk Grove Unified School District in 1997. The Huskies won the Delta League title and are unbeaten against league competition for the first time since Ed Lombardi coached the team in 2006. Sheldon defeated Jesuit, last season’s Delta champion, 27-21 in overtime on Oct. 20 and finished 6-0 in league.

At 10-1 overall, Sheldon has grown leaps and bounds since opening the season with a 41-6 loss to Monterey Trail, which is 10-0 and seeded second in the D-I field behind Folsom. Sheldon plays at No. 4 St. Mary’s in Stockton next Friday, eager for more momentum and a chance at payback as the Rams toppled the Huskies in last season’s second round, winning 31-28.

If there is a trick play in the Sheldon arsenal, it might not be anything more fancy than a 40-yard pass by steady quarterback Fransisco Salinas.

“One of the neat things about our sport is there are so may different ways and systems and styles to be successful, especially at this level,” Cattolico said. “The spread offense is at the forefront for sure. What we do is simple and it’s old fashioned. We’re kind of out of vogue on that, but this sport is still blocking and tackling and getting kids to work for a common goal.

“We’ve been on a pretty good run this season. We’re getting better, which is the name of the game. We weren’t very good at the start of the year, but the growth has been rewarding and fun for the kids and for us coaches.”

Which is exactly why coaches do this: to nurture progress.

Cattolico learned the football trade from his father, Butch, who was a 266-game winner at Los Gatos High. Young Cattolico was a regular at coaching clinics with his famed father.

When Butch retired from Los Gatos, his son invited him to join ranks at Pleasant Grove, where Cattolico built a championship program from scratch before heading just a few miles over to Sheldon the past three seasons.

And there’s this compliment to the old coach: “Everything we do offensively and defensively are his schemes, his stuff, and we’ve added tweaks,” Cattolico said of this father. “Guys from his staff at Los Gatos, now retired, come up sometimes and watch us play. They enjoy it. Different kids, different uniforms, but the same offense. It’s pretty neat.”

It doesn’t take a crew of coaching gurus to understand that it is wise to get the ball to Tyrell Smith. The swift senior tailback has been a primary reason for the team’s surge, as has an ever-improving offensive line under position coach Dale Ellingsworth. He was the first head coach at Sheldon who has delighted in his return to the Huskes, pointing to Cattolico for the reason for the team’s success.

“We make sure without a doubt that we’re not foolish enough to overthink it on offense: get Tyrell the ball,” Cattolico said with a laugh. “He’s pretty special with the ball in his hands.”

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Cattolico has surrounded himself with a stellar staff, including those with head-coaching experience. This includes his father, Ellingsworth, Jason Rossow and Jason Tenner. Coaches often say they are as good as the staff around them and Cattolico relies on his crew to prevent him from “burning the candle at both ends.”

What adds to the Cattolico family fun are Joe’s young sons, Joseph and Dominic, are regulars on the sideline. They’re growing up with this, too. The youngest, 1-year old Giovanni, doesn’t regularly attend games just yet. He spends Friday nights at home with Natasha, Joe’s wife and an English teacher at Monterey Trail.

Winning has become old hat for Cattolico. In 1998, as a 24-year old wiz kid, Cattolico coached Overfelt of San Jose to its first Central Coast Section championship.

The Mercury News of San Jose earlier this season did a flashback piece, running a color photo of a proud Cattolico basking in the moment. Sheldon players found the story online and ribbed their coach as if they had unearthed a treasure from a forgotten era.

“The kids thought it was before the dawn of time,” Cattolico said with a laugh.

Football doesn’t always change and neither do kids.

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