Joe Davidson

Vacaville has overcome adversity to reach title game against Grant

The Grant High School Pacers come on the field before the game as the Elk Grove Thundering Herd host the Grant Pacers, Friday, October 3, 2014.
The Grant High School Pacers come on the field before the game as the Elk Grove Thundering Herd host the Grant Pacers, Friday, October 3, 2014. sacbeephotos@sacbee.com

Vacaville football coach Mike Papadopoulos’ players, friends and family call him “Pop,” and principal Ed Santopadre calls him “a human action figure.”

Papadopoulos showed his boundless energy and plenty of body English as Vacaville used a last-second goal-line stand to beat defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division II champion Del Oro 35-28 last Friday in a quarterfinal playoff game.

Next for the Bulldogs (10-2) is another section powerhouse, top-seeded Grant (12-0) on Friday in Del Paso Heights.

“All these years, we’ve played football and we’d never had the chance to cross paths with Del Oro, and it was an honor,” Papadopoulos said. “And now we have a game with another great program in Grant, another honor. We weathered one storm, and now we have another.”

Vacaville, which uses a run-heavy wing-T, rushed for 403 yards against Del Oro to win a 10th game for the sixth time in 10 seasons under Papadopoulos, who won a Division I section title in 2006 against Merced and a Division II title in 2011 over Folsom and was named the Cal-Hi State Coach of the Year in 2011. That 2011 win was the last time a section team has beaten Folsom.

Papadopoulos said he is inspired by his late father-in-law, Tom Zunino, whom he calls the “Godfather” of the Vacaville football program. Zunino – “Coach Z” – won 215 games as the Bulldogs’ boss before retiring in 1997. He returned to run the Bulldogs’ defense for Papadopoulos in 2006 and 2007. Zunino died in 2008.

Papadopoulos said Zunino taught him how to bounce back from adversity, a lesson he used when Vacaville lost to Oak Ridge 24-23 on the last play on Sept. 5, and the Bulldogs beat Granite Bay 13-7 two weeks later.

But nothing Zunino offered could prepare Papadopoulos for what happened Oct. 6.

Vacaville senior Demetrious Ward was shot and killed outside a Solano County apartment complex early that morning during in an apparent robbery. Two suspects are in custody. The team has played in Ward’s honor.

“Very sad, very shocking, and there’s no preparation for how to deal with that, how to tell your players,” Papadopoulos said. “We had an emotional game that Friday (including presenting Ward’s father with a jersey), and we buried Ward the following Friday. You never wish that on anyone.

“The reaching out by people from throughout the section – coaches, players, administrators with cards and letters and emails and calls – it was overwhelming. We really appreciate the support. People have empathy.”

Capital gains – Capital Christian’s football program has grown considerably from 24-player rosters. Coach Phil Grams’ first team in 2012 went 10-2, followed by 9-2 in 2013. Capital Christian, which opened in 1977, is 12-0 for the first time. The Cougars play Modesto Christian (11-1) for the Division VI championship on Saturday at the Grape Bowl in Lodi.

“We have a great group, our first senior class since we took over as staff,” Grams said. “Those kids embody what this school is about, their impact on campus and the community. There’s a special vibe going on.”

The school built a new field and track this fall, paid for by fundraising through local resources.

“What a year it’s been,” Grams said.

Enrollment bowl – Bear River and Colfax, longtime rivals eight miles apart who will play for the Division V section title Friday at the Grape Bowl in Lodi, have similar enrollment and athletic success. Colfax has 675 students, Bear River 705.

And both teams feature numerous two-way athletes.

“Makes you tougher, and the word we use is ‘grit,’” Colfax coach Tony Martello said. “And we have tons of grit.”

Bear River beat host Colfax 21-20 in a Pioneer Valley League game on Oct. 17.

Will a rematch be easier for Bear River?

“To me, it’s worse this way,” Bear River co-coach Terry Logue said. “My stomach is a mess worrying about this game.”

Logue hopes history repeats itself. Bear River beat Golden Empire League rival Golden Sierra 3-0 in 1994 in double overtime in the section Division III final.

Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.

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