Four storied football programs have taken different paths toward a common goal: win a championship.
The four teams playing in the Sac-Joaquin Section championship games at Sacramento State on Friday and Saturday are linked, either by similarity or by using one another as a gauge to evaluate and improve.
Del Oro and Rocklin, who play Friday for the Division II title for the third time in 10 seasons, are Placer County rivals with players who have grown up competing with or against each other. Their games are among the region’s most anticipated match-ups.
In Saturday’s Division I game, Folsom’s state-best 29-game winning streak will be challenged by Elk Grove. It’s the section’s first game between 13-0 teams since 1989, when Merced edged Nevada Union for the Division I title.
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35 section championship appearances by Elk Grove, Folsom, Del Oro and Rocklin combined since 1984
Since 1984, these four schools have played in a combined 35 section championships, winning 21. Del Oro, Folsom and Rocklin play in the Sierra Foothill League. And Elk Grove, which plays in the Delta League, routed Folsom 54-10 in 2006, prompting the Bulldogs to adjust their style of play.
“We couldn’t win with smash-mouth football then, so we went to the spread, and we got better,” Folsom co-coach Kris Richardson said.
Folsom has become the region’s preeminent power this decade, with an 82-6 record and four section and two CIF State titles.
Tons of talent – Football is a sport of stars, and all four teams have them.
Folsom graduated 21 of 22 starters from its 16-0 CIF State Division I championship team, but the returning player is a large one; five-star left tackle Jonah Williams is headed to Alabama on scholarship. The Bulldogs also have Player of the Year candidate Jake Jeffrey, a dazzling, dual threat who has passed for 3,387 yards and 45 touchdowns and run for 825 yards and 10 scores.
Elk Grove is led by the “Hammerheads,” its dominating offensive line, and running back Ryan Robards, also a Player of the Year candidate. He’s rushed for 2,723 yards and 40 touchdowns and has scored 47 times. Robards signed a baseball letter of intent with Pacific, though his football coaches wonder how he hasn’t drawn football offers.
Del Oro receiver/defensive back Trey Udoffia, who is headed to Colorado, is one of the fastest players in the section. If he isn’t the fastest, Rocklin running back Evyn Holtz might be. Two of the strongest players Friday are Rocklin defensive tackle Chase Hatada (Boise State) and tight end Wesley Preece (UC Davis).
When you lose like we did, you get a lot of advice from the community. That’s the best thing about a community: support. And it’s the worst thing about a community: support.
Del Oro coach Casey Taylor
Coming together – Del Oro (7-6) and Rocklin (10-3) both endured hardships and losses, unlike Folsom and Elk Grove, which had no losses to fret about.
Del Oro lost some games in the closing seconds and was blown out in others. Then Golden Eagles players had to be separated after a tough late-season setback to Oak Ridge.
“We started fighting,” Udoffia said. “We thought we’d be a really good team, then we struggled. Then we fake-liked each other. I was getting mad at all of it myself. Then we talked. We knew we had to come together. We all wanted the same thing – to win.”
Said Del Oro coach Casey Taylor: “It’s been a unique season, but we’re not surprised to be here. When you lose like we did, you get a lot of advice from the community. That’s the best thing about a community: support. And it’s the worst thing about a community: support.”
Rocklin sat two key starters for disciplinary reasons in an early-season game and lost to rival Whitney. But the loss brought the team together.
“We talked discipline and character as a staff and administration and team, and that was the turning point for us,” coach Greg Benzel said. “It was a growing experience, and we’ve been playing really well.”
Family affairs – The coaches’ wives will stress, then celebrate or weep; all four have children growing up in their programs.
Taylor’s young son, Jackson, sat next to him during a preseason MaxPreps media day at Levi’s Stadium, and Taylor’s wife, Janie, can’t sit still during games.
Benzel’s wife, Julianne, once said her husband “comes home to some estrogen for nice balance.” The Benzels have four daughters; the oldest, Paige, is a Rocklin freshman who quizzes dad on team tendencies.
Folsom co-coaches Kris Richardson and Troy Taylor have younger sons – Kaden and Noah – who are best friends. Kaden’s older brother, Kooper, is the Bulldogs’ senior right tackle. Richardson’s wife, Kelly, and Taylor’s wife, Tracey, cover their eyes during close games.
Tina Nixon, wife of Elk Grove coach Chris Nixon, often can be seen zipping a golf cart around the school’s track. Their sons – Sean and Scott – are ballboys for the team. Dressed in Junior Herd jerseys, they ran routes at Sac State during a team walkthrough on Sunday, before taking a seat at the 50 because of exhaustion. Sean, out of breath, proclaimed “the field’s ready.”
“It’s the time of their lives and the time of mine,” Nixon said, echoing the other coaches. “It’s the only way to coach high school football – get the entire family involved. They’re all in. I couldn’t keep (my sons) away if I tried. They’d hide in the trunk of the car to get to practice. And (Tina) does everything – schedules buses, orders equipment, plans meetings, breaks down film. She’s the most nervous in the family on game day.”
Sac-Joaquin Section football championships
- Division I: Folsom vs. Elk Grove, Saturday, 6 p.m., Hornet Stadium, Sacramento State
- Division II: Rocklin vs. Del Oro, Friday, 7 p.m., Hornet Stadium, Sacramento State
- Division III: Central Catholic vs. Oakdale, Friday, 7 p.m., Lincoln High School, Stockton