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Placer's football championship hopes on the line Friday in Stockton

Hillmen go up against tiny Modesto Christian, a giant in regional high school sports
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Modesto Christian is a giant on the football field this season but the first impression that might register with a visitor on approaching the high-school campus is just how small the school is. The unadorned, one-story buildings are tightly packed together on a side street near Highway 99 on Modesto’s northern border. And while Modesto is a city of 200,000, the private faith-based school’s population numbers just 285 students stretched over four grades, with enrollment evenly split between boys and girls. Compare that with Placer High – a public school that sits in a city of 13,000 but has an enrollment of more than 1,300 – and the borders between who gets to be David and who gets to be Goliath in tonight’s section championship blur considerably. In the world of high-school sports, where enrollment figures aren’t always the truest measure of a school’s onfield success, the 13-0 Modesto Christian Crusaders from the small school are the favorites while Placer High’s upstart Hillmen at 12-1 are the underdogs. About 19 miles south of Stockton, where the two sides will play for the Sac-Joaquin Division IV title, Modesto Christian is known statewide for a powerhouse basketball program, contends almost yearly for football titles and prides itself on the number of athletes who have gone on to Division 1 college programs. The school even has an alumni – Chuck Hayes – playing in the NBA with the Houston Rockets. Three years ago, it was named the Cal Hi Sports Division V State School of the Year. Athletic Director Greg Pearce, who also serves as dean of students, said that 80 percent of the student body plays some kind of sport but, more importantly, 98 percent of Modesto Christian’s graduates go on to college. “Our first goal is to prepare our kids spiritually,” Pearce said. “Our second is to prepare them academically and our third priority has to do with sports participation.” It’s a package that isn’t for everyone, Pearce said. While 65 different churches are represented on campus, some potential students aren’t comfortable with the evangelical Christian message and opt to go elsewhere. The school, founded in 1962, is sponsored by the Friendship Assembly of God Church. Prayer is both a cornerstone of classroom instruction as well as on the football field. The team has its own pastor and prays regularly together. Denied prayer or other faith-based options, public schools like Placer rely on character-building as a key component of their sports programs. At Placer High, laws and Supreme Court rulings keep prayer out of the classroom and off the field – although Coach Joey Montoya wasn’t averse late in Friday’s 15-14 win against Sonora to suggest a prayer or two from players might help their cause. And Montoya, who works with Placer High students and many of his players in the Young Life non-denominational Christian ministry, is a coach with a reputation for caring about his players as well as developing winning game plans. Former Placer High School Principal Mike McCoy, now the high schools chief in Sonora, said Montoya’s presence has been an extremely positive one. “I’m a huge Joey Montoya fan,” McCoy said. “If Joey went 0 and 13, his team would still be winners just because of his character.” Montoya and the Placer program’s goal on and off the field is a simple one. “We want to help our kids in any way possible,” Montoya said. Modesto Christian Coach Mike Parsons said prayer time and Bible study are combined with character building and developing poise in his players. For Parsons, the Modesto Christian philosophy is about a 20-year plan for Crusader team members. “We want to create men who in 20 years will look back and say the Modesto Christian football programchanged them,” Parsons said. “Football is just a vehicle to get them to be the guys they need to be. When they start caring about each other, the wins take care of themselves.” For a sports-minded family, the lure of an athletics-oriented school with an academic and spiritual focus like Modesto Christian is a strong one. But it comes at a price. With a yearly tuition fee of $7,400, the school draws most of its students from the Modesto area, although some families make the 45-minute commute from as far away as Manteca. With tightened transfer rules in recent years, the school can’t accept immediate transfers and is also unwilling to accept students who have been expelled from other schools or have disciplinary issues, Pearce said. “We do complete background checks,” Pearce added. “In the end, if someone is not a Christian and wants to go to school here, they need to be held to a statement of faith and school standards. Many good athletes haven’t accepted that.” Character will play an important role in tonight’s game on both sides of the ball as the differences between a public or a private-school education give way to preparation, heart and, ultimately, destiny. ------------------------------------------- Tale of two schools: Comparing Placer and Modesto Christan Modesto Christian School -Founded: 1962 -School colors: Red, white and navy blue -Varsity record this year: 13-0 -Team rallying cry: “No excuses” -School population: 285 -Stadium named after: Roy Blakeley, found of the school and senior pastor of sponsoring Neighborhood Church. An avid sports fan. -Athletic rivalry: Escalon -Revered basketball tourney: The 10-year-old Modesto Christian Holiday Hoops Classic draws 16 teams from across California. Over 70 players from the tourney are now playing Division 1 college basketball and eight are in the NBA. Placer High School -Founded: 1897 -School colors: Green and gold -Varsity record this year: 12-1 -Team rallying cry: “Leave no doubt” -School population: 1,350 -Stadium named after: Ralph LeFebvre, a 1923 Placer graduate who initially worked as the school janitor. He coached outstanding track and basketball programs at the school after earning his teaching degree -Athletic rivalry: Colfax -Revered basketball tourney: The Kendall Arnett. Played in the Depression-era Earl Crabbe Gym, the tournament brings eight area teams together for a Christmas holidy tournament that was started in 1942. Known as the oldest tournament in the state. ---------------------------------- Fan Facts: Championship game survival guide Placer Hillmen vs. Modesto Christian Crusaders -What: Championship game for California Interscholastic Federation Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship -Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium at Stockton’s Lincoln High School, 6844 Alexandria Place -Game time: 7 p.m. kickoff Friday -Full coverage: Story and photos posted at Auburnjournal.com no later than midnight -Radio: KAHI 950 AM and streaming live on the Web for play-by-play coverage -Ticket prices: Adults $10 and students $6 with school ID. Playoff ticket prices set by the California Interscholastic Federation Sac-Joaquin Section. Parking: $5 -Game time weather: The National Weather Service is forecasting a 70 percent chance of rain at kickoff and 60 percent through the game. Temperatures could be from 47 to 41 degrees at 7 p.m. in Stockton, dropping by the end of the game to between 40 and 45 degrees.