Placer coach Joey Montoya knows what his team is up against on Saturday.
Last year, his Hillmen were supposed to be that team.
Now, they’re overwhelming underdogs in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship at Lincoln High of Stockton, where the big, bad and once-beaten Buffaloes from Manteca (11-1) will be to greet them.
Even as the second seed, it may surprise some that this year’s Placer squad — which holds a ho-hum 7-5 record — is even in the finals.
After all, the 2015 Hillmen were more talented, more experienced and hailed as possibly the best team the tradition-rich Auburn school has ever had. They were ousted in the semifinal round, albeit in the far more arduous Division III bracket.
“Last year we would have loved to be in Division IV,” Montoya said. “I know we still went pretty deep D-III but we just ran into that Central Catholic team. Take them out of the mix and we might have a chance.”
Placer, the public school with the smallest enrollment in Division III last year, was routed by the ultra-talented Raiders, 48-14. It ended a remarkable 12-1 season for the Hillmen, while it was just another checkpoint in Central Catholic’s dominant 16-0 march that culminated in a fourth straight small-schools division state championship.
Meanwhile, in the wide-open Division IV, the fifth best team out of the Valley Oak League was making history. The story is well known around these parts by now: Sierra, with a 5-5 record heading into the postseason, came-from-behind to win its Week 10 contest and barely make the playoffs, crushed Liberty Ranch as the No. 3 seed to win its first-ever section title and eked out road wins against Sutter and Chowchilla for the CIF’s Division IV-A NorCal and state crowns.
“That was a real bummer for them,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said of Placer. He got to meet Montoya for the first time last Sunday in the section’s annual football championship banquet held at Wine and Roses in Lodi. “He was talking to me about how deep and talented his team was. We probably would have been the underdog had we faced them this year.”
One year later, Placer gets to compete in Division IV. Go figure that Manteca also falls to the bracket and is the largest school in this eight-team field. The Buffaloes are part of a three-way share of the VOL championship and would have been a heavy favorite in Division III.
“It is what it is,” Montoya said. “We are no doubt major underdogs going into it.”
Placer’s 2015 squad was led by 6-foot-5, 275-pound tackle Jacob Capra, now at Oregon. The Hillmen also graduated two 1,000-yard rushers, not to mention another nearing the 900-yard mark, their top receiver and quarterback and three highly-productive defensive standouts.
A tough act to follow, indeed.
The marquee talent was replenished by a bevy of unproven varsity athletes. Four sophomores — including quarterback Michael Stuck and tackle Joey Capra, Jacob’s younger brother — were inserted into the starting lineup and two others see significant playing time. The junior class makes up much of the rest of the starters at key positions.
“We knew this team was going to be a work in progress,” Montoya said. “We’re probably the only team that makes Manteca look old because they have some young guys, too.”
Placer looked to four seniors to lead the team, but two of them went down with early season-ending injuries: 6-3, 265-pound offensive tackle Alex Houston, who had several college offers on the table, and starting running back/cornerback Mikey Ferreira.
Making matters worse, Anthony Kerrigan, the team’s all-purpose speed threat, missed two of the first five games and half of another with a foot injury.
It led to a winless start with successive setbacks against Golden Valley, Nevada Union and Reno. The Hillmen were then waxed by Vista del Lago 56-14 two weeks later.
“We had our share of adversity this year,” Montoya said.
Placer has grown up quickly since the 1-4 start, winning six of its next seven en route to capturing a fifth straight Pioneer Valley League title. The lone setback came in Week 10 when Lincoln forced a co-championship with a 48-34 win.
Several Hillmen have emerged along the way. They now boast punishing backs in 6-0, 215-pound junior Mario Perez and 5-11, 225-pound senior Morgan Rein-Robinson. The now-healthy Kerrigan looms as a major threat out of the backfield as a pass catcher. And though they prefer to run first out of the Wing-T the improving Stuck has a pair of reliable 6-3 receivers to target in Carter Benz and tight end Hugh Hanson.
Rein-Robinson, the All-PVL Defensive MVP, is also one of Placer’s best defensive players along with linebacker Dallan Trentman and Devin Toste.
“Those guys have really excelled,” Montoya said. “Since we got Kerrigan back he’s been a difference maker. He’s a sparkplug for us, the lightning guy, while Rein-Robinson and Perez are the thunder guys. And our quarterback has really improved. Anytime you start a sophomore quarterback it’s going to take some time, and he’s turning to a really good football player.”
The Hillmen kicked off the postseason with a 42-21 win over 2015 section finalist Liberty Ranch. They then staved off PVL rival Center 17-14 last week, coming down to an incomplete pass in the end zone on the final play. No. 6 Center (8-4) upset third-seeded Sierra (6-5) 29-27 in the first round.
“We’ve come so far since the start of the season; we’re an entirely different team now,” Montoya said. “Whether it’s good enough to compete with Manteca we will see on Saturday night. They’re the 1 seed for a reason and ranked as high as they are for a reason. We’re going to have to play a perfect game to be in it.”
Manteca is vying for its fifth section championship while Placer is eyeing No. 6. The Hillmen won all five of their Division II section titles in a seven-year span (1975-81) under Bill Miller, Montoya’s grandfather. His dad, also Joey, was an assistant coach on those teams. Placer also reached the Division IV finals but came away empty handed in 2008-09.
“It’s great to be back in the finals,” Montoya said. “It goes to show how hard it is just to get to this game in our section.”