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See rundown of Hillmen playoff run in 1970s and 1980s at bottom of story

Hillmen making history

Championship game time is 7:30 p.m. Friday at Folsom
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Two football teams more than a generation apart. Both battled back from adversity off the field to reach a championship game few were giving them a chance of playing. By now, Auburn’s Placer High Hillmen are the talk of the town as they approach today’s Sac Joaquin Division IV final. Twenty-seven years ago, the town was buzzing over another Hillmen football team – a team that won the school’s last section championship and put an exclamation mark on a 10-year run of great teams and great games. Placer Spanish teacher Jim Rodarte bridges the gap between the two section finals teams. He’s been at the school for 30 years and coached during the final years of the Bill Miller-Tom Johnson era. Today he coaches receivers under current head coach Joey Montoya. Rodarte said he sees that 1981 “football town” feeling on the boil again, something that has been simmering for almost three decades but only occasionally bubbling to the surface. “You hear people talking about it at church and at breakfast at Denny’s,” Rodarte said. “You have to give credit to these kids.” The 2008 Hillmen were dealt a potentially crushing blow off the field early in the season when two league wins were taken away. Those forfeits left the Hillmen on the outside looking in, with Colfax advancing to the playoffs. But a judge in Oakland ruled that the California Interscholastic Federation regulation was trumped by state law and ordered the two wins restored – giving the team an improbable, last-minute resurrection for the postseason. Two upset wins have followed, leaving Placer High’s team on the brink of a possible championship win tonight against Rocklin’s Whitney High. Montoya, in his second year as coach and a grandson of 1970s-era coach Bill Miller, said he’s heard the stories surrounding the 1981 team and can see the similarities. “This team has the resilience and a tremendous amount of heart and fight,” Montoya said. “The 1981 season was one of the all-time greatest sports stories.” Miller, now retired from teaching and living in Nevada County’s Lake Wildwood, described the 1981 team as probably his most unique champion team. The season before, Placer High went 12-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the state in Division II football. Just before the 1981 season started, Hillman starting center Dave Wilburn fell down a mineshaft in Foresthill and broke his back. But the worst blow was yet to come. The night before a key league matchup with Del Oro High School, Hillman running back Steve Garcia was killed in an auto accident. Dave Odom, a two-way player on the 1980 and 1981 teams, said team members learned about Garcia’s death in the morning at school and went out that night to play. Rodarte said he still questions playing a game the Hillmen would lose 6-0. “It was devastating for the team, the coaches and the players,” Rodarte said. A similar atmosphere of devastation ran through the lockerroom after the forfeits were announced, Rodarte said. The forfeits came the day before an important Bear River-Placer league game this October. Placer would go on to also lose the Bear River game, battling in the first half but eventually going down 35-14. The forfeits revolved around junior player Dalton Dyer’s return to Auburn from Vallejo and Athletic Director Mark Lee’s decision not to file hardship paperwork the CIF said it required for the transfer. Lee’s decision, based on Dyer’s status as a foster child, held up in a court decision pressed by an Oakland-based foster-youth advocacy organization. Rodarte said Montoya deserves much of the credit for holding the team together during the setback. “Joey has the knack of saying the right things at the right time,” Rodarte said. “And you know it’s genuine. He’s not making stuff up.” The 1981 team turned a corner toward the championship when it won a showdown against Nevada Union, Rodarte recalled. Placer was 6-2 and Nevada Union was undefeated. The Hillmen pulled out a 17-13 win, when Danny Stamper found Brett Rodarte in the end zone for a touchdown with nine seconds to play in the game. (This story previously mentioned a different game, based on erroneous information from the Hillmen history in the centennial 1996 Potpourri yearbook. The game mentioned,a 30-7 Hillmen win in the fog at Placer High, was played in 1980). Rodarte said he saw that same kind of turn toward a new intensity in the win over Oakdale. Rodarte added that it hasn’t been unusual in recent weeks to see former Hillmen – including members of the 1981 squad – at team practices. The team still gets together for reunions and many still live in the Auburn area. Odom, who works in the finance business in Auburn, said he knows of at least one former teammate who is traveling from Oregon for today’s game. Like Rodarte, Odom said he sees the parallels between the two teams as they battled both opponents on the field and adversity off it. And he also has seen a return to an atmosphere he grew up around. “People in town were ready to get excited again,” Odom said. Given a chance to speak at one of the practices, Odom said his words were about moving forward – not looking backward at a team of players now in middle age. He said the spotlight should be on today’s players winning games today. “I said ‘It’s about you guys now,” Odom said. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------------------- Domination days Hillmen have won five section titles Placer High School’s Hillmen football team has made an impressive playoff run to reach tonight’s Sac Joaquin section Division IV championship – a first for the team since its last trip to the final game in 1981. During much of the 1970s and early 1980s, the Hillmen were a state Division II powerhouse, dominating league play and winning five section championships. Here are some of the highlights from those years: 1972 – Bill Miller arrives as Hillmen head coach and is joined by Tom Johnson, who soon afterward takes on co-coaching duties. With future NFL player Gary Anderson anchoring the offensive line, the team wins its first Sierra Foothill League title since 1959. 1975 – The Hillmen break out as a football power in a big way, going 11-0 and winning the team’s first section championship in the first year section championships are played. The team beats the Manteca Buffaloes in Manteca 20-6. The Hillmen end the year ranked No. 2 in the state for Division II schools. 1976 – Placer High wins its second section title, going 10-1 over the season and beating St. Mary’s of Stockton – the state’s No. 1-ranked Division II team – at Auburn’s LeFebvre Stadium 28-20. 1977 – The Hillmen again finish with an 11-0 record and again are ranked No. 1 in the state for Division II schools. The section title game is at Placer, with the team dominating Ponderosa High 33-7. 1978 – The team’s only loss is a heartbreaker. The team finishes 8-1 after being beaten by Nevada Union. The loss ends a 26-game winning streak and keeps the Hillmen out of the playoffs. 1980 – Another undefeated team. Ranked No. 1 again in the state, the Hillmen win the league and section championships with a 12-0 record. Playing at Placer for the section championship, the team thumps Ponderosa 35-8. 1981 – Overcoming adversity, the Hillmen finish 10-2 and beat Mira Loma High School in the section championship at American River College 30-7. The team ends its season ranked No. 3 in the state. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.