The coaches spotted each other Monday morning, shook hands, bear hugged a moment and chatted about their journey to Saturday night’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship game.
The underlining theme when Eric Cavaliere saw T.J. Ewing at a section championship breakfast in Lodi was admiration and respect.
Coaches form a unique fraternity that only they can fully understand – the hours required to make it work, the commitment, the family and player buy-in and sacrifice, the joys of winning, the sorrow of defeat.
Cavaliere has since 2007 headed the program at Oak Ridge, a powerhouse program nearly since the time it opened in El Dorado Hills in 1980. He has coached 12 Oak Ridge playoff teams.
Ewing has guided Monterey Trail within the Elk Grove Unified School District since that program’s start on a sparkling new campus in 2004.
The Mustangs endured tough times early, going 1-19, and then have in the last 10 years stood as one of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s heavyweights, advancing to the playoffs nine times in 10 seasons.
The one thing these programs still covet is a D-I championship, and their meeting at Hughes Stadium will be a culmination of time and effort, with someone basking in the joy and someone the despair of defeat. It’s never easy when friends face off.
“Coach Ewing is a great coach and mentor to not only his players, but he is an excellent example to the other coaches in our area as well,” Cavaliere said. “He genuinely sees the big picture of coaching high school sports.”
Said Ewing, “Coach Cavaliere has done a great job, a great program. There’s a reason they’re always so good. It’s an honor to play them.”
Folsom was the anticipated finalist in this bracket as the Bulldogs had gone to nine consecutive title games, winning eight. They had been NorCal-ranked second behind De La Salle for the entire 2017 and ‘18 seasons and also this season until fifth-seeded Monterey Trail derailed that train last weekend 35-23 in a semifinal.
The Mustangs used the pain of last year’s D-I final as fuel. Monterey Trail trailed Folsom 21-13 at the half of that contest at Sacramento State before falling 63-25.
It was the third D-I title loss for Ewing since 2009. Monterey Trail has gone 24-2 over the past two season with its throwback veer rushing attack, where the linemen hustle to the line of scrimmage and then lead the charge.
It worked brilliantly against Folsom last week to the tune of owning 40 of the game’s 48 game minutes and running 84 plays to Folsom’s 31, including Folsom having just 10 snaps in the second half.
“That’s when we’re at our best, controlling the ball and the clock,” said Monterey Trail running back Caleb Ramseur, who rushed 38 times for 127 tough yards and three touchdowns against Folsom.
The senior has rushed for 1,317 yards and 13 scores.
Seeded second, Oak Ridge (10-2) was eager for a shot against Folsom, having lost to the Bulldogs by three points in a Sierra Foothill League opener. Oak Ridge lost D-I title games in 2012 to Granite Bay, which went on to win the D-I state championship, and in 2013 to Folsom, which finished 14-1.
A year ago, Monterey Trail defeated Oak Ridge 48-20 in a semifinal.
Both coaches said the quest to close the gap with Folsom has made their programs better.
Ewing was curious to see how his team would respond after mass graduation thinned out skill players in May. He’s been delighted. He stresses to players that football is not easy, that it’s hot, dirty work with rewards that only come as a unit.
“So proud of these kids,” he said. “We’re 15 years into this as a staff and we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished. We are firm in our belief. We know who we are.”
Cavaliere was on the Oak Ridge coaching staff under Chris Jones when the Trojans won D-II section titles in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Cavaliere has for years said his school has all the ingredients required to achieve and excel – large enrollment, on-campus coaches, administrative and community support, and athletes.
The best athlete of the lot now is junior quarterback Justin Lamson, the program’s next star signal caller. He keyed a 56-21 semifinal win over Inderkum by completing 12 of 13 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns, one to Avant Jacons and one to Jujahid Samad, and rushing for 73 more yards.
And there’s depth. Reserve running back Gui Lozada had the game of his life, rushing for four touchdowns.
The offensive line is big, the defense opportunistic and the coaching staff experienced. That can all be said at Monterey Trail, too, which is why these teams are meeting.
“Our team is battle-tested and ready to go,” Cavaliere said. “We knew we had a solid group of kids with a strong desire to win – more so than the previous few years. Our defense has been our most solid unit this year.”
Ewing played in the trenches for championship high school teams in the Bay Area, at Aragon High in San Mateo where he got his coaching itch.
He coached San Mateo to the Central Coast Section Division III championship in 2003 after that program was mired in a 1-19 stretch. He then took the Monterey Trail job at the urging of his best friend, Rick Arcuri, a fellow Bay Area transplant. Arcrui is still coaching with Ewing.
Cavaliere played linebacker at Vacaville and was on the field when his Bulldogs lost to Cordova in the 1985 D-I section final. Led by quarterback Troy Taylor, now the coach at Sacramento State, Cordova won 17-7. Cavaliere had an assistant coaching stint at Johnson before landing at Oak Ridge.
“It’s a bit strange, looking back, I don’t think I or just about anyone else really appreciated the experience for how special it is to get to a final,” Cavaliere said. “As a coach, I have been a part of six championship games at Oak Ridge and we have won three of then. We will make sure to get the most out of this one!”
The other thing about the best coaches? They have players rooting for their mentors. That’s true here. Oak Ridge players are inspired to win for Cavaliere and also a coach who will only be on hand Saturday in spirit. Beloved Oak Ridge freshman coach Jason Clark died earlier this year from complications of pneumonia.
At Monterey Trail, players strive for their coach who pumps iron with them in the weight room.
“We’re doing this for ourselves, our school and especially for our coach,” Monterey Trail running back/defensive back Prophet Brown said.
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