Placer faces tough Foothill foes

Friday marks first Hillmen home playoff in 29 years
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Tucked away in the Sacramento suburbs, Foothills High School isn’t on most Auburnites’ radar. But on Friday, when Placer High’s LeFebvre Stadium fills for the first Hillman home playoff game in 29 years, spectators will be very much aware of the orange-uniformed opponent. Just like the Hillmen – the Mustangs are a team that has battled adversity to make it this far. And they’re from a school with traditions, challenges and, now, a winning football team – just like Placer’s. Drive west on Interstate 80 for 22 miles, turn off the freeway onto Elkhorn Boulevard and then make a left toward Foothills High School on Hillsdale Boulevard and you’re in suburban Sacramento. Developed in the 1960s, the Foothill Farms area the school is ensconced in is a maze of wide streets, houses and shade trees. The heartbeat of the area is a campus stretching out over a wide swath of former pasture land. Its crown jewel is its recently built $8 million football stadium. It’s where the 7-3 Mustangs play their home games and a point of pride for the school. Winning tradition Both Foothill and Placer are building on their past. Placer has had a handle on what has come before for years, with a hall of fame now numbering in the dozens and pennants honoring sports champions going back to the early 20th century festooning 74-year-old Earl Crabbe Gymnasium. Principal Will Brown, a Grant High School tight end who went on to play at Fresno State, has been at the helm of Foothill the past two years. One of the first things he did was order pennants to commemorate the many Mustang teams that have won state and section championships in the past. They’re now prominently hanging in the school gym. “We have 40 years of history at Foothill but it hasn’t been on display,” Brown said. “Now people can come back at homecoming and say, ‘Hey, we did this.’ They can point to a pennant and say that it happened while they were here.” While the Foothill campus is expansive, with one-story buildings and plenty of open space, Placer High is tucked tightly into a residential neighborhood where many of the homes were built in the early 1900s. Placer plays in a band-box of a stadium compared with more modern facilities like Foothills,’ which was built with bond money. On Friday, instead of synthetic turf, the two teams will be playing on a well-worn grass field – and in mud if it rains. OLD STADIUM A KEEPER Efstathiu said Placer doesn’t suffer from any stadium envy, though. While talk continues on expanding both home and visitor seating, a new stadium isn’t being considered. “We wouldn’t want to change anything,” Efstathiu said. “There’s an ambience about the stadium and that would take away from its appeal. Spectators are close enough to see their kids’ faces.” Placer High is an established part of the community and its traditions run deep, noted Hillman freshman football parent Ty Elkins. “It’s definitely community,” Elkins said. “When people talk in the stands, many times, their moms and dads went to Placer and they had the same teachers.” It’s a sense of community that Brown is hoping to build on at Foothill. Friday’s game will provide the school with a good vision of how the community can embrace Foothill on the field and off, he said. “This is a good community and they want what is best for their kids,” Brown said. “We want to build the same community feeling that you have at Placer. One way to do it is to win a lot of football games.” BATTLING BACK Both teams have battled off-field adversity. For Placer High, it came last year when Dalton Dyer, now a senior on the team, was ruled ineligible to play and the team forfeited league games because of a ruling by the California Interscholastic Federation section. The ruling was reversed in court and the forfeits overturned after it was determined state law on youths in foster care trumped out-of-date federation restrictions on player eligibility. An energized Hillman team took that courtroom triumph onto the field all the way to a final-game loss in the section championship. Those winning ways have continued this year, under third-year Coach Joey Montoya. Placer High Principal Pete Efstathiu, like Brown, a second-year school administrator, said last year’s off-the-field challenges demonstrated that strong bond between community and school. “Judges, attorneys and parents were asking how they could help – not ‘How could this have happened?’” Efstathiu said. “Between the lines, it was saying that they want what’s best for the kids.” At Foothill, the Mustangs have dedicated their last two games – both wins – to varsity player Jamahry Brown. Brown suffered a concussion at practice and then was hospitalized when it was discovered that he was suffering from bleeding on the brain – a potentially fatal injury. “JB4” INSPIRES “A lot of kids went to visit him in hospital and we said we’d win the last two games for him,” said Mustangs quarterback Andre Berg. Players wore “JB4” on the back of their helmets and were further inspired when Brown, not due back in school until after Thanksgiving, showed up in the locker room before the Center game. The underdogs on Friday, Foothill will be carrying the growing hopes of their community into a stadium in the foothills where another community – with traditions stretching back more than a century – is holding out its own football dreams. ---------------------------- What: Playoff football game When: 7 p.m. Friday Where: LeFebvre Stadium, Auburn Cost: $9 general admission; $5 for students with school I.D., elementary students and senior citizens ---------------------------- Fast facts: A Tale of Two Schools Foothill High School Founded: 1965 Colors: Orange and black Varsity record this year: 7-3 and 6-1 in the Capital Valley Conference Famous sports grad: Kevin Thomas, defensive cornerback for the Buffalo Bills from 2002 to 2005 Defining phrase: “The hoofbeats are many – the heartbeat is one” School population: 1,500 Stadium named after: No name for stadium but field is named after Sacramento-area gridiron icon Frank Negri, who coached the Mustangs for 42 years and now is with Natomas Principal’s prediction: Principal Will Brown says Foothill 27, Placer 21 Placer High School Founded: 1897 Colors: Green and gold Varsity record this year: 9-1 and 6-1 in the Pioneer Valley League Famous sports grad: Pole vaulter Stacy Dragila, Olympic gold medal winner in 2000 Defining phrase: “In the best of times and the worst of times, it’s always great to be a Hillman” School population: 1,350 Stadium named after: Ralph LeFebvre, a 1923 Placer graduate who later coached outstanding track and basketball programs at the school, retiring in 1970 Principal’s prediction: Principal Pete Efstathiu expects Placer to win 35-14