The Monterey Trail Mustangs fear no team.
They march to a confident beat under the program’s founding coach T.J. Ewing, a big man who can be as gregarious as he is game-time fierce. He started the MT program from scratch when the school opened within the Elk Grove Unified School District in 2004, and he endured new-program growing pains that included a 19-game losing streak.
Then the Mustangs settled in with their vaunted veer running attack, leading to multiple trips to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship. Now Ewing and his troops, including USC-bound receiver/cornerback star Prophet Brown, seek games this odd and curious spring season.
Anyone up for a kickoff?
“The coolest part about our program is the guys all love each other, love to play for each other, their brothers, but we’re a vagabond crew right now and just want to play,” Ewing said. “Right now, we have nothing.”
Monterey Trail’s 2020 fall schedule included national power Bosco of Southern California, Del Oro, Pittsburg, Folsom and Cosumnes Oaks. It was as formidable a schedule as you could find in Northern California. Then the fall season was wiped out due to COVID-19 concerns, as were all of prep sports across the state, since March. Now the Mustangs hope to schedule some Elk Grove Unified programs, their neighbors, or maybe even jump in with some of the Sierra Foothill League schools to fill in for Grant, which told the SFL to schedule without the Pacers as they seek Twin Rivers Unified School District clearance to play football.
Monterey Trail’s EGUSD district and Metro League are within Sacramento County, which expects to be under the state’s per-capita threshold of 14 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people to begin practices next week.
The Metro League athletic directors decided in January that if its member schools Burbank, Johnson, Kennedy, Laguna Creek, McClatchy, Monterey Trail and River City were within an acclimation period by Feb. 15, then schools could create their own schedules. That is what has happened. All of those schools except River City and Monterey Trail are in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
What adds to the chaos is the Sac City Unified has not had on-campus learning since the pandemic roared in a year ago, and there is a tug-of-war between the teachers, union and district, everyone stressing safety.
The only Metro League school that can start football practice beyond conditioning on Friday is River City, which is in West Sacramento of Yolo County.
There is a sense that Metro League schools may focus on spring sports as spring seasons were wiped out last year, but nothing formal has been announced. The grim truth is football simply may not happen for all of the Metro League schools this spring.
“Spring sports in the Metro got nothing,” said Jim Smrekar, the Metro League athletic director who is in regular contact with the ADs of the member schools. “There are still a lot of questions, such as COVID-19 testing for football players. Does anyone have any of that set up anywhere? It all sounds good but there still has to be a plan.”
Spring sports is one thing, fun for all involved, but football always carries extra weight as it is the most popular fan sport, has the largest rosters and can help fund other programs on campus with gate receipts.
But how much money will Metro teams earn with limited fans allowed? With no playoffs, no formal league schedule, will it be worth it to even kick off?
And will Metro teams field just varsity programs during a three-to-five-week spring schedule (games have to end by the end of April) as more teams add up to more challenges?
Is it all worth the fight?
Yes, says Alex Gomes-Coelho, because of the student-athletes who have waited months for a chance to compete.
Gomes-Coelho powered Johnson football into the playoffs in 2019 for the first time in 20 seasons, raising interest on campus, coaching to the point of exhaustion. With a new field on campus sparking new optimism, the coach feels as if he’s stuck in a rut.
“We are able to condition,” he said, adding that he would likely have just a varsity team, if games are allowed this spring. “We are not going to opt out of anything as a staff. We owe it to the kids to do whatever we can to get them games, opportunities or any semblance of normalcy.”
McClatchy athletic director Rob Feikert knows the impact of football on a campus. He played at Sacramento High in the 1980s and later was the head coach at McClatchy. Now he feels like a man with few answers, “trying to keep my head above water.”
“Patience is always the No. 1 thing, and communication key during these times, and there’s always going to be frustrations,” Feikert said. “The most frustrating thing is you want to do the right thing, but we have to follow the CIF guidelines, the county and state health guidelines, and our own district guidelines, who trumps whom?