Sometimes, the best way to deal with the misery of defeat is through humor.
Laugh a little, coaches and players say, to soothe the pain.
At Mira Loma High School, the Matadors have endured a trying season. They are a badly beaten 0-8 team, surrendering scores of 52-0, 58-0, 62-0, 64-7, 76-0. Their 18-game losing streak is the area’s longest.
But spirits remain high at the San Juan Unified District school that fielded winning football teams the 1960s and ’70s, and now is recognized for its International Baccalaureate program and Science Bowl teams.
On Monday, coach Toby Thurman hollered to his best player, Marquez Lewis, some 20 yards away, to stand still. Thurman wanted to throw “some dimes” to him. The ball hit Lewis square in the calf.
“Coach,” Lewis said, smiling, “You missed badly.”
“No, no,” the coach replied. “I was aiming for your leg.”
Thurman eyed his 14-man practice squad, hopeful he’ll have 21 players in uniform for Friday’s game against 0-8 Rio Americano.
“We need to hear some laughter here, because it’s still a game – it’s still supposed to be fun,” Thurman said. “Laughter helps us cope. We don’t come out here to lose, and if I ever told these guys that we’d have to forfeit due to lack of numbers, they’d be really angry at me. They want to compete.”
And therein lies the motivation to continue. Thurman said the Matadors to a man haven’t given up, and that Mira Loma shouldn’t be defined by wins and losses, but rather for its courage and effort.
“Self-esteem is OK, and I’m very proud to say we give it all we have,” Thurman said. “We just don’t have enough bodies, and we have players learning the game, trying not to be timid. It’ll take time.”
Thurman, for as much as he loves his team, said he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Mira Loma lost four starters with concussions and others to an assortment of injuries. The coaches are bigger than the linemen, and every day is a learning experience. While most area coaches focus on offensive play-calling and defensive scheming during practice, Thurman and his staff teach fundamentals: how to tackle, block, run a sweep.
Low participation, constant coaching turnover and a lack of feeder programs have contributed to Mira Loma’s history of just three winning teams since 1984. Thurman said losing only one player to grades this season has been a victory in itself.
Lewis – a 6-foot-2 junior who can play wide receiver, linebacker and other positions – said football has allowed him to mature. He said he needs this game, needs his teammates.
“We rely on each other,” Lewis said. “We support each other. We’re good teammates. But we do bag on (tease) each other and give each other a hard time. It’s hard not to when we’ve struggled like this.”
Lewis said he’s a changed man from a year ago. He smiles more often.
“Last year, I ditched class, didn’t care, wasn’t respectful,” he said. “Now I have goals. I’m on time to class, early even. I try to be a better example. I’m doing much better in school. It feels good to be a Mira Loma student, and I walk the campus with pride. We try, but we just don’t win. And to see our students out there at our games cheering, that’s been a real highlight.”
Lewis also proved to be a capable campus recruiter, luring four newcomers – now starters – to the football field, including some who used to bag on the Matadors.
“What we like to say to students who second-guess us is, ‘Where are you? We don’t see you out here. Help out,’” Thurman said.
Thurman played on the defensive line at Armijo High in Fairfield and at American River College in the late 1980s. The fifth coach at Mira Loma since 2007, Thurman said he plans to stay awhile, adding, “There isn’t a more rewarding job than trying to get a team to grow, improve, succeed.”
The Matadors measure success not in wins or loses but by sustained drives and first downs. Thurman said he has been pleased to see opponents pull their starters early to avoid further humiliating his Matadors, who have scored only three touchdowns this season. In a 64-7 loss to No. 12 Christian Brothers, the Falcons played the role of good sportsmen.
“On punt returns, we had our kids fair catch,” CBS assistant coach Dave Hoskins said. “Everything we did was to not embarrass them. It takes a lot of courage to keep coming back every week, and those kids played hard. There’s no use beating up on kids. Some of us have been on both sides.”
Thurman said he’s moti-vated by how other schools have turned around their programs. Natomas entered this season with a state-leading 32-game losing streak and is 5-3. Union Mine has gone from 1-9 in 2013 to 4-3. Esparto ended a 22-game losing streak and is 5-3. Foothill last Friday halted a 12-game on-field losing streak.
Colfax endured a state-leading 33-game losing streak in the early 1970s, then emerged as one of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s powerhouse small-school programs. Rio Linda, Sacramento and Galt experienced skids of 26 or more games – when chants from people they thought were friends echoed, “0-and-10, do it again!” – before recovering.
Sometimes the most compelling stories in sports are the winless teams and how they cope.
“You know,” Thurman said, “we have one of the best punters anywhere in Jesus Gonzalez. He’s had plenty of chances and has hit some 60-yarders.”
And from Lewis, the team leader: “Our families judge us, too. I’ll hear, ‘How come no one is blocking out there?’ We say, ‘We’re trying!’”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.
A look at the longest losing streaks in area high school football and how teams reacted:
▪ 36; McClatchy, ending in 2005: The Lions practiced the victory formation that week, for fun amid a lost season, and used it amid tears.
▪ 34; Colfax, ending in 1975: Coach Bob Claycamp said he was “young, dumb and naive” – he was later the defensive coordinator for Colfax’s 1986 section championship team.
▪ 32; Natomas, ending in 2014: After ending the skid, players, coaches and administrators embraced as if they had won the Super Bowl. The Nighthawks are now in the playoff hunt.
▪ 30; Rio Linda, ending in 1983: Coach Don Dillon first had to change the culture, including ending the players’ midweek quail-hunting trips.
▪ 28; Sacramento, ending in 1985: Coach Ron Reclusado received standing ovations in class, and coaching brother Pete fielded calls “from old girlfriends.”
▪ 28; Kennedy, ending in 2013: Coach Matt Costa said he finally earned a restful weekend sleep after “waking from a coma.”
▪ 28; Encina, ending in 1990: The school switched mascots from Apaches to Bulldogs, anything in an effort to change the image and karma.
▪ 28; Encina, ending in 2012: The coaches were so delighted to win, they answered the dare from players to dance in the locker room.
▪ 26; Galt, ending in 2002: It was so grim that the Warriors’ leading rusher at midseason was the punter, on three busted plays and a fake.
▪ 22; Bear River, ending in 1988: Coach Terry Logue, still on board, said players were afraid to tackle. The Bruins haven’t had a losing season since.