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Glory Days: 1977 Hillmen were Placer’s first 'State Championship' team

By: Mike Ray / Gold Country News Service
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 They played on Friday nights in the same packed stadium before excited crowds under the same beaming lights with the same goal – win football games.
 
And Tuesday afternoon when a handful of players from Placer High’s first “State Championship” team in 1977 gathered at LeFebvre Stadium with their coaches to reminisce and renew old friendships, there were plenty of memories.
 
“It was a special time,” said George Harrison, who quarterbacked the 1977 team. “I think coach (Bill) Miller and (Tom) Johnson were the architects of the whole thing. They really turned a bunch of regular guys into an outstanding team.” 
 
Now in their early 50s, the ex-Hillmen — one a retired operating engineer, another a water district supervisor and yet another a grandpa — showed flecks of gray in their hair and beards as they proudly stood high above the field where they had some of the finest moments in the school’s storied grid history.    
 
“I called that team the Wonder Boys,” said Johnson, who coached the Hillmen defense while Miller guided the offense. “We won a couple of games that year some other teams might not have won.”
 
Tim Lenconi, who still resides in the area and owns Icon Hearth & Home, was one of the catalysts of the 1977 defense from his linebacker post.
 
“I look back and it was a different time. We were doing things a lot of programs weren’t,” Lenconi said. “We had a 12-man coaching staff. Lifting weights, the shaved heads — it was great.”
 
In 1977 at Placer High, the school’s grid program was in the middle of what could be termed as the “Golden Era” of Hillmen football. It was a fun time to be a Hillmen fan when victory wasn’t just yearned for, it was expected.
 
In a remarkable seven-season stretch from 1975 through 1981, the Hillmen program went 71-5 and only lost more than one game in a season just once — in 1981 — and still won both a league and CIF section championship that season. Under the tutelage of co-coaches Miller and Johnson, the Hillmen won five CIF crowns over a seven-year span, something almost unheard of in this era.
 
And while Placer had won CIF section titles in both 1975 and 1976 — going 21-1 in that stretch — it was the 1977 squad that put together the first trifecta: a Sierra Foothill League crown, a CIF section title and ended the season as state champions, with a No. 1 ranking among California’s AA schools, according to Cal-Hi Sports.
 
Not to be outdone, three years later, the 1980 squad repeated the feat. 
And now, with Placer High’s current Hillmen edition posting the school’s first perfect regular season in over three decades, conjuring memories comparing the 2012 squad to some from the glory days are sure to come up. 
 
“There were times on our sideline that year that we said we’re not losing tonight guys,” said linebacker Bob Wallace, who coaches linebackers on this year’s Placer team. “We had our backs to the wall a couple of times but we pulled through.” 
 
After going 10-1 and winning its second consecutive CIF title in 1976, the 1977 squad began the season with an unbearable amount of pressure weighing on its shoulders as they strived to live up to the challenge of winning a third straight section crown.
 
The Hillmen began ’77 by starting fast with wins over Woodland, 35-0, Las Plumas, 37-0 and Marysville, 23-0. Then, in week four, Placer was paired up with highly-touted Yuba City in what was being hyped as the Superior California “Game of the Week.”
 
A year earlier, the talented Honkers had handed Placer its lone loss and returned several of its standout players. With just a minute left to play, and Placer trailing, 20-19, it looked like Yuba City was going to prevail over the Hillmen again.
 
But actually the Hillmen had Yuba City right where they wanted them. Facing a fourth down and 25-yards-to-go situation with just 45 seconds left to play, the calm and collected Harrison found elusive Denny Brewer on a 38-yard scoring play for a scintillating 25-20 win in a game played before 6,000 fans at LeFebvre.
 
Returning to Sierra Foothill League play, Placer rolled up SFL foes Oakmont and Del Oro before turning back another stiff challenge by using two touchdowns apiece from Steve Farinha and sophomore Mitch Holscher to top Roseville, 26-13.
 
That set the stage for an epic SFL title game in Grass Valley at Nevada Union with a Miners team that came into the game with the Hillmen unbeaten in league play and 8-1 overall. With 2:25 to play, the Miners looked on the brink of ending Placer’s five-year SFL unbeaten streak when they blocked a punt out of the back of the end zone for a safety to take a 23-21 lead.
 
About to receive the free kick from the Hillmen, all the Miners would need to do is pick up a first down and run out the clock. But it never happened as Key Burns delivered a perfect onside kick that Dean Reese recovered. Five plays later Brewer hauled in a short pass from Harrison and turned it into the winning score, 28-23, with just 40 seconds to play.
 
The Hillmen were ripe for an upset in their final SFL game but survived a Saturday afternoon special at Lindhurst, turning back the Blazers, 36-22, to complete a perfect regular season.
 
After a two-week layoff, the CIF “AA” playoffs opened and in the first round Placer was matched with El Dorado, which had one of the top passing games in the region with talented quarterback Terry Tuttle.
 
But Tuttle never got El Dorado airborne as the Hillmen’s bruising 4-4 defense — led by the likes of Lenconi, Wallace, Kevin Sipherd, Jeff Patton, Denny Sellers, Mitch Shindlebower, Phil Whitney and Tony Ward — didn’t allow the Cougars inside their 30-yard line. The running of Farinha and the passing of Harrison to Tim Reeves opened up Placer’s air game for a hard-fought 14-0 win. 
 
The CIF then set up a coin toss between Placer and Ponderosa to see which school would host the ensuing “AA” championship game. For some reason, Placer principal Jug Covich had an uncanny knack of making the right call, as four straight seasons saw the Hillmen host title games.
 
In the championship game, Don Eldridge scored on three short runs and Whitney returned an interception back 31 yards for another tally as the Hillmen romped, 33-7.
 
With a third straight CIF title in hand, it was only a matter of waiting and in January when Cal-Hi Sports released its final poll, the Hillmen were the top-ranked AA team in California outdueling Don Lugo of Chico, Royal Oak of Covina, North Vista of Riverside and Hayward for top honors. 
 
Many of the ex-Hillmen still reside in the area including Patton, Rick Soloman and Reeves. Meanwhile, Whitney and Sellers, both terrors on defense, live close to each other in Montana.
 
“It was a special time,” said Miller, who now is retired and resides in Lake Wildwood but still finds time to come and watch his grandson, Joey Montoya, coach the current Placer team on Friday nights. “The kids and coaches worked hard and were rewarded. It was great seeing all the guys today.”  
 
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Placer’s ‘Golden Era’   
Year          Record  SFL     CIF      State AA
1975         11-0     1st        1st       No. 2
1976         10-1     1st        1st       No. 2
1977         11-0     1st        1st       No. 1
1978          9-1      2nd       —       No. 8
1979          9-1      1st         —       No. 5
1980         11-0     1st        1st       No. 1
1981         10-2     1st        1st       No.  4