The Orestimba High football team is playing for a slice of history ... and the right to keep the 5-foot wooden Chief right where it is.
It stands in the corner of the school lobby, cradling a football, strategically placed for selfies with students, staff and visitors.
“There’s a lot at stake here: The Chief and the league championship,” Orestimba coach Aaron Souza said. “We have it right now and we’ve earned it. Our job is to play good enough to retain it. They’re going to do everything in their power to take it from us.”
Gustine welcomes the chance to turn over the Southern League throne, win back the piece of sculpted wood and keep its advantage in the all-time series.
If you’re looking for a rivalry game with layers, look no further than this epic brewing on the West Side. Gustine holds a slim advantage in the series, 35-34-2, but the Warriors have won 10 of the last 12 meetings, including two straight.
That run has coincided with the rise of the program under Souza, a former student raised between the hash marks at Roger Pauletto Memorial Field. Orestimba has won 20 consecutive league games and can clinch its third straight SL crown on Friday.
No Orestimba boys varsity team has gone undefeated in league play for three consecutive seasons since the 1940s, Souza said.
“We have the Chief and the league title is on the line,” Souza said, “but we’re working toward history.”
Another indication that momentum belongs to the purple people from Newman, not its red-clad neighbors four miles south: The upperclassmen are 4-1 against Gustine.
“This game has always been close. None of these games have ever been blowouts,” Souza said. “Is there a psychological advantage? All of that is irrelevant at 7:30 p.m. All that matters is what happens in that two-hour time span is who makes plays and who tackles.”
It promises to be a contrast in styles, Orestimba’s high-octane, quick-strike offense versus Gustine’s ground-and-pound attack.
Gustine’s first-year coach Ronnie LaBry wants to turn the game into a wrestling match, grinding out possessions with running backs Oliver Perez, Bryan Villalobos and Brandon Garbez.
“We have to make stops on defense,” Souza said. “They have a great rushing attack ... the best we’ve seen all season.”
Perez has rushed for 1,213 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Garbez, a speed merchant, has rushed for 740 yards and six touchdowns.
Villalobos is the “bull in the china shop,” LaBry said. The senior has rushed for 564 yards and nine touchdowns, including a 100-yard game in last week’s win over Waterford.
“They’re a great football team with a great offense,” LaBry said. “We just have to play our game. We can’t try to do too much. No heroes, just play your position and do your job.”
Two years ago, Gustine went off script in a 21-13 loss. Both teams entered the game 9-0 and featured marquee stars: 2,000-yard running backs Austin Martins of Orestimba and Brandon LaBry of Gustine, and a dual-threat quarterback in Orestimba’s Joe Sheldon.
Instead of chewing up clock with its run game, Gustine tried to attack through the air. It cost them dearly. Gustine threw four interceptions, fumbled once in their own end zone, and went scoreless on its final four drives.
Perez and fellow senior Daniel Caldera were the only Gustine players to play in 2015.
“We didn’t play the game we normally play,” coach LaBry said. “This year, we’re not going to stray from what we do. We have three backs that do things a little differently. ... I like where we’re at. I think we can run with the best of them.”
LaBry wasn’t raised in the rivalry, like Souza. The Santa Cruz native was introduced to the decades-old community feud when his children began playing sports. The rivalry, he says, extends beyond the football field.
“It starts when the kids start playing baseball, basketball and football,” he said. “As they go into high school, those same kids are still battling for championships. We grew into it. The rivalry is unique. If you don’t think it means anything to the people in this town, you’re wrong. Everyone loves the Chief; everything else is secondary.
“I don’t care if it’s powder puff, jacks or hopscotch, it’s big. It’s bragging rights for a year. It’s bragging rights for the rest of your life.”