Kyle Uclaray epitomizes the grit of the program and Jason Voter the spirit.
And Bear River High School co-coaches Terry Logue and Scott Savoie represent the Bruins’ football soul and resolve as beloved leaders and keepers of the faith.
Combined, Bear River rolls – and half-limps – into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V championship game inspired to repeat when just a few weeks ago, there was fear that the Bruins might not win another game. Bear River entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, thinned by injuries and team morale wavering. The Bruins are now 2-0 in the postseason and hungry for more on Thanksgiving week.
Uclaray went down in the first quarter of the first game of the season, the senior linebacker and running back felled by a torn ACL. He was so determined to be a part of this program, one he grew up longing to compete for, that he would lead the Bruins onto the field for pregame warmups, in uniform and in half-gallop with the bum knee, carrying the U.S. flag.
Uclaray decided to give it one last chance as a player and was cleared by a doctor, as long as he wore a specialized knee brace. He played inspired in Bear River’s opening 20-7 playoff victory over Ripon, and he sealed Friday’s 31-21 semifinal victory over unbeaten Capital Christian with an interception.
Voter, the senior quarterback, offered a passionate halftime speech Friday, imploring his teammates to up their game and extend their season. They responded, as did Voter, who hit Dave Mastrella for two touchdowns. And not to be outdone, Austin Baze, sidelined down the stretch of the season with a sore shoulder, powered in for three touchdown runs against Capital Christian.
“We’ve always taken pride in that we may not win every game, but by God, you’ll know you were in for a game with us,” said Logue, a coaching staple at the Grass Valley school for more than 25 years. “We’ll hit you hard, pick you up, hit you again, and we play hard. We’ll give our best effort, always.”
This has been the formula for Bear River as it has pieced together 25 consecutive non-losing seasons, a remarkable feat considering its declining enrollment.
“Look at Kyle Uclaray,” Logue said. “He wanted to be with us so bad. He was scheduled for knee surgery this coming Monday. Doesn’t want to quit. None of them do.”
Hammerhead pride – Ryan Robards has scored 45 total touchdowns and rushed for 2,501 yards for Elk Grove, the second-seed opposite of Folsom in Division I, both school records. The senior scholar points to seven players in particular for his success. Six are linemen known as “Hammerheads” in Diego Cervantes, J.C. Cornelio, Trevor Reinwald, Lau Ta’amu, Jon Pochop and Jake Bellecci and fullback Aidan Martinez.
Robards vowed to treat them to more good eats, per tradition, after Elk Grove thundered past Merced on Friday 58-16 in a quarterfinal, in which Robards rushed for a school-record 375 yards and five touchdowns. His 2,501 yards also shattered James Kidds’ school mark of 2,358 set in 1991.
“I’m nothing without those guys,” Robards said of his teammates.
More linemen love – Placer is 12-0 and in the D-III semifinals against 12-0 Central Catholic on the strength of a punishing running game, and a similarly punishing group of linemen. The Hillmen rushed for 531 yards behind their three-headed running back mix of Owen Scott, Waylen Cozad and Jared Halbert, and credits their linemen for the success. The line is headed by Oregon-commit Jake Capra and Alex Houston, Diego Lopez, Logan Moore, Jack Petty and tight end Derek Haney.
Tradition counts – As is tradition for Northern Section small schools, championship games will be played Wednesday as a Thanksgiving Eve treat.
Second-seeded East Nicolaus will host No. 5 Williams in Division IV play. East Nicolaus has beaten Trinity 52-14 and Durham 30-28, and Williams got past Colusa 13-0 and two-time defending champion Winters 8-0 on a four-yard touchdown run by Lewis Davalos, who also scored the two-point conversion.
Bowing out – Herbie Berry and Dave Morton have stepped down as football coaches in the Elk Grove Unified School District, satisfied with the overall experience of helping mold young lives but also unfulfilled in not being able to get their programs into the playoffs.
Morton started the Laguna Creek program from scratch when the school opened in 1994, and he did two tours as head coach, elevating the Cardinals from a 1-9 season in 2013 to 5-5 this fall.
Berry, a charter teacher and coach at Sheldon when it opened in 1997, saw the Huskies go 1-9 in 2014 and 2-8 this season. Sheldon nearly beat Grant on Oct. 23 but a potential game-winning field goal was blocked in the closing seconds, allowing the Pacers to hold on 21-20.
An intriguing name that might come up as a replacement for either post: Joe Cattolico. He started Pleasant Grove from scratch in 2005 and made it a powerhouse in short order, stepping aside two years ago, but remaining as a teacher.