Hometown Report

American River College football embraces the favorite role

American River football coach Jon Osterhout has guided the Beavers to their first community college state championship Saturday against Fullerton. His team is more crisp than his beard, which he sports out of superstition.
American River football coach Jon Osterhout has guided the Beavers to their first community college state championship Saturday against Fullerton. His team is more crisp than his beard, which he sports out of superstition. Photo courtesy of the American River College Current

It didn’t get any easier for Jon Osterhout after a record-setting season.

The pressure intensified, but the American River College football coach didn’t run from it. He embraced it.

After guiding the Beavers to their first state No. 1 finish in 2014, a campaign that ended in a 17-14 loss to City College of San Francisco in the Northern California championship game, Osterhout was just getting warmed up. The onetime Sacramento State All-America lineman and assistant coach went through an exhaustive interview and paperwork process to shed the interim tag and land the Beavers job.

Osterhout then went on a whirlwind recruiting tour to corral area high school talent, scooping up the overlooked or the late-developing athlete.

You think recruiting is cutthroat at the four-year level? It’s not always civil and sane at the two-year level, especially without binding letters of intent. Athletes may not arrive on campus until the first day of practice. Sometimes they appear on the roster of the rival program, but binding commitments similar to those of scholarship four-year programs won’t happen anytime soon. Community colleges lack the resources to implement compliance departments to regulate such matters.

So recruiting rages on. Coaches from ARC, Sacramento City College and Sierra College tug at the same prospects as they offer similar opportunities while competing in the same conference.

“It’s definitely nonstop and intense,” Osterhout said as his team prepares for Saturday night’s season opener at Modesto Junior College. “But this is why we do it. You love to coach, build teams.”

Osterhout has constructed another powerhouse. The Beavers are ranked fourth in the state and second in NorCal behind San Francisco, according to the JC Athletic Bureau.

Community college football receives little exposure as big-time college sports dominate television, but it features immense talent and often serves as a launching pad to four-year programs. ARC alums include Utah tailback Devontae Booker, a Heisman Trophy darkhorse candidate who accumulated 124 yards of offense and scored a touchdown in the Utes’ 24-17 victory over Michigan on Thursday night.

“JC football has never been better,” Osterhout said. “It’s an exciting time for this sport in California, just phenomenal. People don’t necessarily know how much talent there is until they see a game, and then they see the style, the speed, the competitiveness.”

Blending recruits from all walks of life who hail from regions near and far can be problematic. No high school star pines to go to a community college; each has visions of the big-time Pacific-12 Conference or the mid-major Big Sky Conference that includes Sac State and UC Davis. Community college players are eager to show their worth. They want to get in and get out – fast.

“We don’t have the flashy D-I weight room, the 50,000-seat stadium, but JCs do have a lot to offer,” Osterhout said.

The two-year college level also is a haven for four-year bounce-back players. ARC starting quarterback Jihad Vercher transferred from Sac State. His backup is Bee All-Metro passer Chris Guillen from Christian Brothers.

“For a lot of guys at this level, they come in and experience a slice of humble pie,” Osterhout said. “Ultimately, it’s all about preparing them for the next step and the workforce. They think it’s competitive now – wait until they get into the workforce.”

ARC flinched in the shadow of Sac City in the 1980s when the Panthers towered as a national presence under coach Jerry Sullivan. Sierra became the regional power in the 1990s and 2000s under coach Jeff Tisdel, and now it’s ARC’s turn as top dog. Don Dillon got the Beavers on track 10 years ago with a 10-1 season, then Jerry Haflich elevated the program before health concerns forced him to turn matters over to Osterhout, who has elevated it further.

Osterhout has surrounded himself with some of the region’s most recognized coaches, including longtime Sac State defensive coordinator Lou Baiz and onetime area prep head coaches Josh Crabtree (Sheldon), Doug Grush (Bella Vista), Ryan Gomes (Cosumnes Oaks) and Mike Morris (Rio Linda). The ARC staff offers a lot of experience, insight and personality.

For years the chasers, the Beavers now are the pursued.

“Now we have the target and everyone comes after us, and rightfully so,” Osterhout said. “It’s been earned. We don’t flinch from that or shy away. We accept the challenge.”

Watching from afar last season and up close now is Bruce Werner, ARC’s athletic director from 1979 to 2001 who is back until Nov. 1 as the interim AD.

“Jon Osterhout is highly, highly organized, just super, the real deal,” Werner said. “He has great people skills, and he engineers trust. He’s honest, ethical. He’s not the kind of guy an AD has to go behind to pick up the pieces. He’s as good as it gets.”