Monterey Trail High School’s varsity team played all the big boys in high school football in 2021, lost six games, and yet, somehow, some way made it to a Sac-Joaquin Section championship game for the third year in a row.
That fact alone is why the Mustangs, under the direction of head coach T.J. Ewing, are the Citizen’s Team of the Year.
Some area prep football fans thought Ewing wasn’t in his right mind when he made the football schedule this fall for his Elk Grove team. After seasons of some real stand-out squads, he wanted to take the level of competition up several notches. As a result, they took some lumps along the way.
The Mustangs played local juggernaut Folsom (lost 56-14), San Jose-area school Los Gatos (lost 42-20) and then the Northern California football mecca, De La Salle (lost 69-6). They also dropped games to Clayton Valley Charter, the 2019 State Division II champion, and a heart-breaker to Lincoln of Stockton.
Ewing justified the non-conference schedule this way: “You should have fun playing high school football. How many guys get to say, ‘In high school I played De La Salle, I played Folsom?’”
Monterey Trail went into the Metro Conference part of the schedule 0-5. Then the Mustangs’ showed their muscles and blew right through the competition. The end of the regular season they were 5-5, but conference champions.
Through a unique twist in the way the Sac-Joaquin Section determines its playoff brackets, the Mustangs were slid into the number seven seed in Division II. They were runners-up in Division I football in 2018 and 2019 (there were no high school playoffs in 2020 due to the pandemic).
Ewing, staff and players were hoping the third time in the playoffs in three seasons would be a charm. It started that way.
The Mustangs blew right through Woodcreek, 39-23, in the post-season opener on Nov. 5. Next up was a showdown at Granite Bay against the Grizzlies and its first-year coach Joe Cattolico, the former Pleasant Grove and Sheldon coach as well as a childhood friend of Ewing. Granite Bay held an early advantage, but then a big fumble recovery by the Mustangs inside the 10-yard line stopped the Grizzlies and gave Monterey Trail some momentum. No.2 Granite Bay was upset in their house, 35-24.
That put the Mustangs into the semi-finals, played in Thunder Stadium on Nov. 19, against rival Elk Grove High. The Mustangs knocked off the defending Div. II champions, 27-23, thanks to two key fumble recoveries. Monterey Trail had now won eight games in a row.
This season the Section championship games for Division I and II were played at Hughes Stadium on the campus of Sacramento City College. The opponent was Central Catholic, a football power who had won 19 previous Section championships (a record), the last being in 2015. The game was controlled by the Mustangs in the first half. Daelin Ellis scored on the first play from scrimmage in the game when he sprinted 80 yards for a score.
Early in the second quarter, Monterey Trail’s Fatafehi Puloka forced a fumble and it was recovered by Malikai Red at the Central Catholic 19. Quarterback Frank Arcuri scored on an eight-yard keeper three plays later. Arcuri, the holder for extra points, mishandled the snap from center and passed the ball to his brother Vince for a two-point conversion and a 15-7 lead.
The Mustangs led 22-13 at half. But, the second half was a different story. Monterey Trail was outscored 30-0, held to 79 yards total offense and lost the game, 43-22.
But, few schools get the opportunity to play for championships in what amounts to three consecutive seasons.
Monterey Trail’s accomplishments shone through in the All-Metro Conference football team honors. Mustang quarterback Frank Arcuri was named the conference most valuable player while teammate Tanaki Tonga was selected as the defensive players of the year and Mustang running back Ali Collier was named the offensive player of the year.
Lineman of the year in the Metro was Uvante Usher while Ewing was named co-coach of the year alongside McClatchy’s Zach Cuda.
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