Nothing stings quite like the label of loser.
In high school athletics, the fortunes of the football team often identify the mood and status of a campus or town. This isn’t always fair, but it happens.
Colfax in the 1970s was mired in a regional-record-worst 34-game losing streak. The Falcons were sad sacks in shoulder pads then, but the town didn’t lose any bit of its charm. The school still included good teachers, staff and students.
Colfax figured things out in football by the 1980s and has emerged a small-school powerhouse since the 1990s. The momentum will be punctuated Saturday night when the Falcons host the CIF State Division 5-A championship game against San Diego in its tree-lined stadium that makes for as picturesque a scene as there is in Northern California.
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“It’s always sweeter when you can do it at your old school,” said Colfax coach Tony Martello, an alum who loved his town so much he never really left.
Saturday’s state final may be about the biggest thing to hit this Placer County town since President Herbert Hoover visited in 1932. There isn’t a traffic signal in Colfax – population 1,200 – but imagine the congestion for a downtown parade should the Falcons prevail.
In the early 1980s, Rio Linda suffered through a 30-game losing streak.
It wasn’t Rio Linda as much as it was “Rio Loser.” Shop owners and students didn’t argue the label, they rolled with it, though it didn’t match all the good decent people who loved their town. Some of the best coaches and people I’ve met in this business are from Rio Linda.
Don Dillon, an alum of the school, inherited the streak. He understood that in order to change the culture of the program, he had to put an end to certain traditions. It was common for football players to engage in mid-week, after-school pheasant hunting excursions.
Once the athletes put away their shotguns and focused on blocking and tackling, the Knights became players. The losing skid ended in 1983, but the town’s image continued to take a beating.
Rio Linda was unmercifully skewered in the 1980s and ’90s by radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, whose career took off in Sacramento as he gleefully left his non-adopted town in his wake of verbal venom.
Limbaugh regularly labeled Rio Linda as “the benighted armpit of Sacramento,” insisting it was a haven for cars on blocks and where farm animals were pets. He hammers away on Rio Linda on his national show even now for the sheer sport and spite of it, and he continues to be off base.
Limbaugh did not return calls or emails seeking comment on the gloss that has sparkled Rio Linda of late. Too bad since he’s a football fan and might even appreciate the rise of the Knights. We could have informed him that a Rio Linda downtown parade last week was attended by some 2,500 people, the football players embracing the Northern California championship plaque as they were celebrated like members of civic pride.
“Our players were cheered on like conquering Romans,” Rio Linda athletic director Mike Morris said. “I thought it was awesome. The mood and vibe of this school and town is the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here in 1991. Just a great excitement level.”
Morris in the 1990s cringed while teaching his U.S. history class, when students bemoaned their own town and school. There was joy in self pity then, but it was a bad feel and bad look, so Morris did something about it. He lectured his students about town pride, and he did so with his football staff and players.
“When I got here,” Morris said, “it was a town that belittled itself. I put a stop to it on my own staff. When something bad happened, someone would say, ‘Well, that’s Rio Linda.’ No, it’s not. We’re positive from here on out.”
The Knights will host San Gorgonio of San Bernardino for the CIF State Division 5-AA championship Saturday night in a pristine stadium that is light years from any image of cars on blocks.
On Thursday morning, two other towns will send off their football teams for the season’s final hurrah.
In Loomis, the train depot plaza will be full as people send Del Oro off with good wishes. This has become common fun. The Golden Eagles play Grace Brethren of Simi Valley for the CIF State Division 2-AA title Friday afternoon in Norwalk, Del Oro’s fifth state final this decade. The Golden Eagles suffered in football years ago, the 1970s for a bit.
Also Thursday morning, people of all ages will usher off the Folsom Bulldogs, who seek a CIF state championship repeat. Folsom plays Cathedral Catholic of San Diego on Friday night for the CIF State Division 1-AA title. The Bulldogs seek their fourth trophy of the decade – a far cry from the lean years of the 2000s, when a winning record was a real achievement.
Four teams, four towns and one universal feel-good theme.
CIF State football championships
At Cerritos College, Norwalk
Division 1-AA: Folsom vs. Cathedral Catholic-San Diego, 8 p.m.*
Division 2-AA: Del Oro vs. Grace Brethren-Simi Valley, 4 p.m.*
Division 1-A: Liberty-Brentwood vs. Sierra Canyon-Chatsworth, 8 p.m.*
Division 2-A: San Joaquin Memorial-Fresno vs. Lawndale, 4.p.m.*
Lower-division title games
All games Saturday at 6 p.m. unless noted
Division 3-AA: Lincoln-San Diego vs. Menlo-Atherton at Sequoia High School in Redwood City
Division 3-A: Kaiser-Fontana at Wilcox-Santa Clara
Division 4-A: Garfield-Los Angeles vs. McClymonds-Oakland at Laney College
Division 5-AA: San Gorgonio-San Bernardino at Rio Linda
Division 5-A: San Diego at Colfax
Division 6-AA: Strathmore vs. Hilmar at Atwater High School
Division 6-A: Orange Glen-Escondido vs. Lincoln-San Francisco at City College of SF, noon
* Games televised on NBC Sports California. Other games will be live-streamed online through NFHS Network.
Games already completed
Open Division: Mater Dei-Santa Ana 35, De La Salle-Concord 21
Division 4-AA: Pleasant Valley-Chico 43, Central Valley Christian-Visalia 14
Division 7-AA: Denair 42, Santee 14