Placer Hillmen, Sonora Wildcats square off Friday in playoff football

Plus: “A Tale of Two Towns” trivia comparison of schools. Also: Fans’ guide to going to the game
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Walk down a street in Sonora and you’ll probably catch sight of some green and gold. People are wearing it with pride – pride in their football team. They love their Wildcats. The town lives for its Friday-night home football games at Sonora High School’s Dunlavy Field, a stone and concrete stadium built in the 1930s that has attracted up to 7,500 spectators this year. The green-and-gold uniformed Wildcats play the Placer Hillmen Friday in Auburn in a playoff clash of schools in communities that have plenty in common both on and off the field – most notably a stretch of Highway 49 and their stock of rustic Gold Rush-era buildings. But in terms of a town that lives, breathes and practically bleeds green and gold, Placer is playing catch-up. Mike McCoy was Placer High’s principal between 1997 and 2000. He’s now superintendent of the Sonora Union High School District but has seen Wildcats and Hillmen games this year. Around Sonora, the Wildcats are known to play Mountain Football. It’s a term of endearment that’s code in the community for hitting hard and playing hard. MOUNTAIN FOOTBALL But McCoy also sees Mountain Football as a statement of how the game reaches out from the school into the community. It’s been that way since the 1920s, he said. McCoy, whose daughter is a junior at Placer High, won’t say who he expects to win the Sonora-Placer game, but says the teasing does go back and forth between the two. “It’s safe to say that I’ll be rooting for a 100-year-old school off Highway 49 that wears green and gold,” McCoy said. Game day, particularly when arch-rival Oakdale is in town, is a galvanizing experience for Sonorans. Extra bleachers are brought in. The Future Farmers of America barbecue goes into overdrive. And the stands in a stadium U.S. News & World Report rated in the national Top 20 for places to see a high school game fill up. “It’s the only time you see grocery stores and the Walmart empty,” McCoy said. With a surprise march to the section final last year and another deep run this year, Auburn is getting a taste of what the Wildcats and their community have been experiencing for decades. Todd Peek, president of the Placer football boosters group, said he grew up in a Mojave Valley, Ariz. football town where everyone was at the game on Friday nights. “Afterward, every pizza place was packed,” Peek said. “It was about football.” INTEREST UP Winning under Placer Head Coach Joey Montoya has helped but Peek also said he’s seen a jump in interest just from teams being competitive. Instead of players in bordering communities deciding to go to other schools, they now want to play at Placer, he said. That interest builds a support base in the stands and in the community that makes the team play with more spirit, he said. In essence, success builds upon success. “When the kids look up and see the stands are full, they play harder,” Peek said. Sonora defensive end Dan West said that expectations are high in the community and it’s not uncommon to have people give him words of support as he walks down the street. Ty Rowe, a lineman with the Hillmen in the early 1980s, played at the tail-end of a series of championship teams that were judged some years as the best in the state. Owner of Bootlegger’s in Old Town, he’s donated to team events through good years and bad. The past two years have been good ones, with the promise of more to come. Rowe said he’s seeing the same spirit this year that he saw in the 1980s, although the community was smaller then and more spread out, with players coming from Foresthill and south Nevada County. Those areas have their own schools now. “Winning counts a lot to keep the community involved,” Rowe said. SONORA SUPPORT Sonora High Principal Todd Dearden can reel off some impressive attendance figures to indicate the level of support his community shows for home games. An average game during the season draws from 3,000 to 4,000 people. The homecoming game each year boosts attendance to about 5,000. And when Sonora takes on Oakdale – they’ve been battling each other every year since 1922 – the stands regularly overflow with close to 7,000. It’s the kind of community where businesses along Washington Street through town put up “closed” signs early on football nights because most people are at the game, Dearden said. “People are extremely supportive of the school,” Dearden said. “It’s in the middle of town and it’s not only sports. We consider ourselves the cultural center of the community too.” GIVING BACK Randy Selisia, owner of 62-year-old Vic’s Towing and Service, helps tow extra grandstands into place for big games and has a grandson on the Wildcats junior varsity team. His observation is that many of the football players go on to have success in advanced education and then return to be part of what they grew up in. “Football is a very integral part of the community,” Selisia said. Peek, president of an Auburn wireless services business, said that in just four years he’s seen a big move at Placer in that direction. “At one time, you could pick your spot anywhere in the bleachers,” he said. “This year and last has been a whole different experience.” ----------------------------------- Tale of two towns: Placer High School -Founded: 1897 -School colors: Green and gold -Football team’s rallying cry: “Leave no doubt” -Varsity record this year: 11-1 -Famed ex-baseball player: Jeff Blauser, a shortstop with the Atlanta Braves, who played on the 1994 World Series winner -School population: 1,350 -Stadium named after: Ralph LeFebvre, a 1923 Placer graduate who initially worked as the school janitor but found coaching track more to his liking because it “beat pushing a broom.” His track teams won 18 league titles in 22 years. -Athletic rivalry: Colfax -School band: The 75-member Golden Hillmen Marching Band Sonora High School -Founded: 1903 -School colors: Green and gold -Football team’s rallying cry: “Leave no doubt” -Varsity record this year: 10-2 -Famed ex-baseball player: Phil Coke, a pitcher with the New York Yankees, who played on the 2009 World Series winner -School population: 1,230 -Stadium named after: The school’s first football coach Vernon Dunlavy. He was principal from 1917 to 1953. -Athletic rivalry: Oakdale -School band: The 100-member Sonora High School Golden Regiment Band ----------------------------------- Fan game guide: Placer Hillmen vs. Sonora Wildcats -What: Third-round playoff game. Third home playoff game for Placer in 29 years (all this year). -Where: Placer High School’s LeFebvre Stadium -Game time: 7 p.m. Friday -Full coverage: Story and photos posted at no later than midnight -Radio: KAHI 950 AM and streaming live on the Web for play-by-play coverage -Ticket prices: Adults $9 and students $5 with school ID. Elementary students are $5. Senior citizens are $5. Playoff ticket prices set by the California Interscholastic Federation Sac-Joaquin Section. - Gus Thomson