Joe Davidson

In prep football, maintaining excellence as tough as ending frustration

Folsom was the clear No. 1 seed in Division I.
Folsom was the clear No. 1 seed in Division I. Special to The Bee

The thing about extensive winning and losing streaks is they tend to manifest significance.

They start small and unassuming, and then their force builds like an avalanche. And it’s how teams – coaches and players – handle continued success or seemingly endless failure that defines such runs in high school football. How does a program such as De La Salle of Concord, which hasn’t lost to a Northern California school since 1991, continue its dominance despite wearing a bull’s-eye?

Or Folsom, which hasn’t lost to a local team since 2011 and is riding a state-leading 36-game regular-season winning streak?

And there’s Mira Loma, teetering on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Matadors measure success by small victories – first downs, touchdowns, keeping players eligible. Mira Loma is in the midst of an area-worst 23-game skid.

Success inspires programs, small and large, with the fear of failure serving as constant motivation. Bear River hasn’t suffered a losing season since 1987, able to overcome declining enrollment and fierce competition. The Bruins won another small-school Sac-Joaquin Section championship last fall and are 4-0 this season. Grant is aiming for a section-record 25th consecutive playoff berth, a Northern California large-school streak second only to De La Salle.

Attitude is everything. We’ve had meetings this week where the kids are still enthused about the opportunity to play, to grow, to get better, and that’s encouraging. It keeps us all going. But it isn’t always easy.

Toby Thurman, coach at Mira Loma, which is mired in a 23-game losing streak

In any circumstance, coaches view the football field as an extension of the classroom, only these pupils engage with shoulder pads and helmets. But the learning curve and lessons are always there.

“We’re teachers of the game, leaders,” Mira Loma coach Toby Thurman said, adding that the Matadors are “winners” in his book. “Attitude is everything. We’ve had meetings this week where the kids are still enthused about the opportunity to play, to grow, to get better, and that’s encouraging. It keeps us all going. But it isn’t always easy. Sometimes we feel like the movie ‘300’ and feel outnumbered. And we have to have a short-term memory. We can’t dwell on the losses. As soon as we take that knee as a team after the last game, we’ve already moved on.”

The winning programs embrace the same theory. De La Salle coach Justin Alumbaugh, whose team plays at Granite Bay on Friday and hosts Del Oro on Oct. 23, and Folsom co-coach Kris Richardson said the focus must be on the present. Neither coach talks about their respective winning streaks as they remind their players that complacency is just as formidable as the next opponent. Maintaining a winning culture is just as difficult as trying to reverse a losing trend. The more it builds, the harder it is to control.

“It is hard to maintain,” Alumbaugh said of the success. “It’s very hard, to be honest. Every team we coach is different, different temperament, and you’ve got to find ways to reach a team the best you can. We focus on the day-to-day grind, being better, turning homework in, being on time, being a good teammate. It’s tedious and exhausting, but it’s what we do.”

BEHIND THE STREAKS

De La Salle’s 151

De La Salle peeled off the granddaddy of all streaks, winning an all-levels (high school through NFL) record 151 straight games through 12 undefeated seasons that ended in 2004. The nation’s preseason No. 1 team this year, De La Salle hasn’t lost to a NorCal team since 1991, 263 games ago. The Spartans are 26-0 all-time against the Sac-Joaquin Section and 9-0 all-time against Sacramento-area teams, with recent wins over Del Oro, Folsom and Jesuit.

Coach Justin Alumbaugh said the pressure to win motivates the Spartans.

“It’s hugely beneficial for us because we have a target (on our back),” the coach said. “I see that as a really good thing. We have a lot of good teams who come at us with everything they’ve got, and it elevates us. We have to respond on a weekly basis, and that hardens us.”

The key to facing a team riding a big winning streak? Don’t let it freak you out, coaches and players said. At Granite Bay this week, coaches are reminding their players that De La Salle, for all of its remarkable pedigree, is still made up of humans.

“The coaches say they’re high school kids, too, and you can’t be intimidated,” said Sam Cusano, a team captain and linebacker at Granite Bay. “We definitely admire what De La Salle has done, but we have to feel like we can win, and we do.”

Folsom’s rise

Folsom used defeats as lessons for a way to improve. A decade ago, the Bulldogs were ecstatic to win back-to-back games. Then in 2009, a crushing last-play loss to Del Oro in the playoffs, after losing a 35-7 lead, forced the coaches to re-evaluate.

Folsom implemented new offseason programs that included weight, speed and agility training, and has become a juggernaut. The Bulldogs since 2010 have won four section championships and two CIF State crowns. They are 49-2 since 2012, losing only to De La Salle in NorCal Open championship games. Folsom hosts Del Oro on Friday.

“We’ve got a good thing rolling, but it took a ton of work, learning how to do things differently, and then doing it,” Folsom co-coach Kris Richardson said. “We absolutely remember how hard it was to win two games in a row. We pushed ourselves.”

Richardson said he’s especially pleased to win at a public school, where the culture on Folsom’s campus is one of athletic excellence.

“It’s the only culture we know now,” Richardson said. “If you want to play football here, this is the work you’ve got to do. And there’s an absolute sense of pride, having watched these kids grow up.”

Mira Loma matters

Low roster numbers, coaching turnover and a lack of feeder programs have contributed to Mira Loma – a football power in the 1960s and 1970s – producing just three winning seasons since 1984.

Progress is slow, but it’s there, coach Toby Thurman said. Mira Loma managed just 23 points in 2014. The Matadors this season have scored 17 points twice and also lost a game to Highlands 84-43. Mira Loma, with a roster of 18, did not lose any players to grades. Marquez Lewis and Matt Marlin, Thurman said, lead the Matadors by example and effort. Thurman himself arrives on campus each morning at 6:30 and leaves some 14 hours later.

“I love these kids, and we feel we can turn this around,” Thurman said. “We’re learning how to practice, to be a teammate. We won’t cut corners. I can’t sell my soul here. There’s got to be accountability and integrity. You have to put the work in to get the rewards, no matter where you are.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

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