The Sac-Joaquin Section’s best small-school football conference for the last two decades hasn’t retained that perch by standing still.
Around the turn of this century, the Trans-Valley League was all about smash-mouth football – the grind-it-out, pack-the-box style that amplified the importance of execution and magnified every mistake – with perennial power Escalon as its poster child.
And while the top teams in the league still will be able to play that style, particularly when they’re trying to grind out a close victory in the fourth quarter, the TVL game has followed the trends of football in general. So now, when you watch a TVL game you’re much more likely than before to see the ball in the air, even (gasp) multiple teams running forms of the spread offense.
“We used to be a black and blue league with everybody running the ball,” said Hilmar coach Frank Marques, whose Yellowjackets this season boast the league’s top senior quarterback in Jonathan O’Brien (2,110 yards, 25 touchdowns, two interceptions as a junior). “Even Escalon is getting away from running the ball all the time, and Ripon is throwing the ball.”
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Like Hilmar, Ripon has an exciting young quarterback in junior Nick Price, who threw for 1,612 yards and 20 touchdowns against only six interceptions in 13 varsity starts as a sophomore. As a result, the Indians have the person capable of moving a team through the air, and coach Chris Johnson certainly will take advantage of that weapon.
“Football has evolved and while three yards and a cloud of dust is effective it doesn’t get kids excited about coming out to play the game,” Johnson said. “You have to be able to spread the field and move the ball and make other teams guard the whole field.
“Another factor is that 10 to 15 years ago you showed up in August and that’s when football started. Now with passing leagues you can work on timing and get it dialed-in, so the spread stuff has a chance to be more effective.”
This doesn’t mean every school in the TVL will be coming out in empty backfield sets. In fact, at least one program may be looking to give a more basic, more conservative look.
“Kids are becoming better athletes and you do try to get them to a spot in the open field,” said Riverbank coach Jim Oliver, whose Bruins will be entering their final TVL season before going independent for probably one to three years starting in 2015.
“Last year we ran the spread and had a lot of kids moving around on offense. But this year we’re going back to the Wing-T.”
Modesto Christian’s hybrid winged-pistol offense took California by storm in 2009, rolling up an amazing 7,340 yards of offense (489.3 yards per game) behind quarterback Isaiah Burse (now with the Denver Broncos) while going 15-0 and claiming a state bowl title.
Yes, that offense was wide-open and exciting, but what might be forgotten was how ground-based it was. Those Crusaders ran the ball 80.5 percent of the time and gained 74 percent of their yards on the ground.
Mike Parsons, who coached MC to the state title, has returned to Salida, and knows the value of being able to move the ball on the ground.
“The teams in the TVL will want to spread you out, but they’ll still want to run the ball on you,” Parsons said. “There’s definitely more balance, but if you can’t run the ball you're not going to win the TVL. It’s still going to be the black and blue division, maybe not as much. You'll still see 70-30 running the ball.”
Hughson coach George Harp believes that the movement toward wide-open offenses, in part, is to attract young athletes into the program. They see college teams throwing 60 passes in a game and it looks like fun.
“The kids see Oregon and Auburn and want to see their own teams running the spread,” Harp said. “But Alabama wins and they’re not flashy, and a lot or people don’t understand that.
“If you run the spread year-in year-out it can help you when you have the athletes, but forcing it if you don’t have the athletes can hurt you. Hilmar went to a Power-I in the second half of a season after losing a quarterback. Escalon fits guys into the same system and has had a great run. But the spread is what kids watch on TV, so it’s what they want to do.”
As Harp mentioned, no TVL team has been more ground-based over the years than Escalon, which also has been the league’s most successful team since coach Mark Loureiro took the reins 26 years ago.
Over the past five seasons, the Cougars have run 3,469 plays from scrimmage, with 2,876 (82.9 percent) being rushing plays. Escalon went six consecutive years (2006-11) without throwing 100 passes in a season – a run that included its 2010 state bowl title.
“A lot of coaches are doing a better job at spreading the field and getting one-on-one matchups to put their best athletes in position to make great plays,” Loureiro said. “But when it comes down to it, on that final night at the end of the year, the teams that run the football and can play defense still win.
“I'm for all this kind of wide-open stuff, but when the weather starts being a factor you have to run the ball and control the clock.”