Hometown Report

Hometown Report: Prep dynasties elicit love, hate

Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson

Franchises that fans love to see achieve and foes want to see flop: Cowboys, Yankees, Lakers, Notre Dame.

This theme resonates in high school, too, particularly in football, the primary buildup sport of anticipation and momentum.

Cordova owned the region in the 1970s and ’80s, and a triumph over the Lancers thrilled the victors. Elk Grove in the 1990s and Grant last decade emerged as the towering teams with sustained staying power.

De La Salle in Concord is living the role of perpetual heavyweight going on 30 years now. Opponents are eager for a shot at the nationally renowned program but have largely been humbled. De La Salle seeks its state-record 22nd consecutive North Coast Section championship tonight, a NorCal Open repeat, a fifth successive CIF State Open championship and a 10th national No. 1 finish. Everyone, it seems, is waiting for a crack to appear in the dynasty foundation.

“We’re dream crashers,” De La Salle athletic director Leo Lopoz said last year.

Within the Sac-Joaquin Section, Folsom has elevated to monster status. So good, its success has become too routine. Folsom won the 2010 section Division II title over state No. 1 Grant and went on to win a state championship behind MaxPreps National Player of the Year Dano Graves. The Bulldogs were 14-0 last season before falling to De La Salle in the first NorCal Regional final.

And here they come again, rolling at 13-0entering tonight’s Division I section championship against Oak Ridge. Folsom is led by Gatorade State Player of the Year Jake Browning. The Sacramento State seats will fill with Folsom followers, Oak Ridge backers and curious spectators looking for Folsom to trip and a changing of the guard. And that’s a compliment. Football feeds on upsets.

“When people root against you, it definitely means your program has a certain level of respect, and it means Folsom has set a certain bar that others have to match in order to be competitive,” said Mark Tennis, the editor of Cal-Hi Sports. “You have to do things differently to keep up with the buzz saw. People in the Bay Area have tried for years against De La Salle and can’t get to that level. Folsom is doing the same thing in Sacramento.”

Folsom players have become targets as much as the program. Take Browning. The junior quarterback receives more heat than any prep athlete in this region since social media burst onto the scene. Material such as: He pads stats. He’s a system quarterback. He’s a showboat. He’s overrated and over-exposed.

As modest as he is prolific, Browning downplays it all. His Twitter profile captures who he is: “I play quarterback, but that doesn’t totally define me.”

Browning is a 3.6 student and peer tutor on campus. He coaches youth sports. He is applauded by his teammates, coaches and teachers for his efforts in and out of shoulder pads. He has passed for more than 10,000 yards in two varsity seasons. He had 63touchdown passes last season and has a state-record 69 now. And he has a year to go. Area coaches say he’s an all-time great with a bright collegiate future.

And the anonymous talking heads?

“Everyone wants to see us get upset, to see us struggle,” Browning said softly. “We just play the game. We don’t really care what people say (on social media) about us. But we do laugh at it.”

Troy Taylor can relate to criticism and lofty expectations. The Folsom co-coach who has worked closely with Browning was Cordova’s star in 1985, quarterbacking the section’s first 14-0 team. As a Bella Vista transfer, he became an immediate target and all the more reason to boo Big Red.

“People want to knock you off when you’re on top,” Taylor said. “Jake and our team have handled all of this really well.”

Said co-coach Kris Richardson: “We’ve heard it about Jake, that he’s throwing touchdowns to pad stats. There have been games this season where he’s had one pass in the second half. And we’ve heard, ‘Oh, it’s just the Folsom system that makes him look good.’ Well, to do what he’s done, you’ve got to be a special player. We’ll hear, ‘Well, he’s no Dano Graves.’ No, he’s not. Two totally different players, and two great players.

“I do know this: Jake’s one of the best players in state history, and his knowledge base, his work ethic, how he handles his teammates, deals with coaches, how he is on campus, people should admire that.”

Browning’s poise reflects his play. Nothing rattles him. He’s having too much fun, and he’s too busy crediting his teammates and coaches for what he calls “team awards” – the Gatorade honor and the touchdown record.

Hard to poke holes in that.