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TW's,The Chicken Or The Egg thread really got me thinking about one of the most memorable moments of my life. While reading the question it got me thinking about how privileged I was to be part of such a great football experience while in high school back in the mid 90's. We were a small high school located in Le Grand, Ca which consisted of three tiny farming towns. Needless to say, on Friday nights, there was nothing bigger than high school football.
A few years ago I was approached by a lady who wanted to do a story about our high school football journey and our quest for the school's first section title. This story brought back a lot of memories both good and bad and no matter how many times I read it, I always hope for a different outcome at the end.
Here's the story:
LE GRAND, Calif. — If you knew the Le Grand Bulldogs varsity football team in 1995, you had the luck to witness talent on the field, humor off of it, and a freakishly confident bond forged long before any of them started shaving.
In 2010, those Bulldogs are still a talented, fun-loving bunch of guys. They also still share that crazy bond, one strengthened by distance, misunderstanding and a devastating loss in a high school football game 15 years ago.
Do you remember 1995?
PART ONE: Once upon a time ...
This is a story about some boys who knew they were great athletes and spent 10 years working to prove it.
It began sometime in the early 1980s when nearly the entire crew of boys, who would play at Le Grand, in 1995 started their athletic careers with kickball and dodgeball on the unforgiving blacktops at Planada and Le Grand elementary schools.
We caught our first glimpses of Raul Granados’ strength and brothers Camilo and Jesus Lopez’s speed and utter lack of concern for their own bodies.
“We were always like that,” 1995 team member Marc Diaz said. “We didn’t have Pop Warner growing up. So P.E. and recess were very serious."
They graduated to playing Merced County Recreation League baseball — as Green Machinists, Blue Devils, Pirates or Margarita’s Tortilleros.
“We all played summer baseball but we couldn’t wait to get to high school to play sports,” Diaz said. “Everyone knew [Jesus] Pacheco would be a quarterback and Pete Nava would be a linebacker and Camilo would be on offense somewhere.”
In the days before Tri-City football, Planada Elementary School teacher Ben Sanchez gave the youngsters their first official football lessons. Every year, he would guide the seventh and eighth grade boys in several flag football games with the big annual game pitting the Planada Tigers against the Le Grand Vikings.
But when the 1995 team seniors were in seventh grade, they scrimmaged the eighth graders, led by some pretty good athletes in Jeremy Perez and Tony Garcia, and won. In an unprecedented move, Sanchez merged the seventh and eighth grades teams into the all-star group that went on to beat Le Grand.
The 1995 team's athleticism and fearlessness showed up early, so did the ego. During kookier moments, it wasn't unusual to catch those future boys of 1995 walking away from some game or other talking about how “someday, we’re going to win a championship.”
“We knew we had talent,” Nava said. “We couldn’t wait until we could actually play. ... If we could stay away from the vices and stay focused, we could do it. … We held each other accountable, even back then.”
Linebacker Peter Nava: “Big chip on the shoulder. Hungry. Confident. Great speed. Experienced.”
Quarterback Ruben Moreno: “A bunch of guys who loved to work and loved to play football.”
Linebacker Mike Cisneros: “Hard-nosed. We loved to hit. Relentless. We had heart.”
Offensive tackle Aaron Beene: “We stuck together on and off the field.”
Free safety Jesus Lopez: "The perfect team in my eyes."
Linebacker Raul Granados: “No egos.”
Receiver Camilo Lopez: “Family.”
Once they got a chance to put on pads, the raw athleticism got honed into a sharp football point.
“Every practice was like a game,” Moreno said. “It was very intense. That’s how we got so good. If you didn’t come ready to play, someone would knock you on your butt.”
The defense featured a fierce linebacker trio. In the middle, Granados, 6-1, 230, was the guy that intimidated opponents just getting off the bus.
“I knew how to handle the big boys from the other team,” he said. “I didn’t back down."
“We grew up with Raul,” Cisneros said. “If he said, ‘Knock it off! Let’s go!’ we did. Immediately.”
Nava and Cisneros played on the book-ends, both tough and football smart.
When Nava, now a PhD candidate at UCLA, wasn't bringing down ballcarriers, he was making sure Granados kept his grades up.
Cisneros, now and then, devoured the football tactics, studying notes on opponents’ tendencies in class instead of paying attention to class.
“A lot of time, if someone was out of position, Mike would be there correcting guys,” offensive tackle Matt Beene said. “Nava, too. Mike was a football junkie. He might have been too skinny to play linebacker but he had so much heart, probably more than anyone on the team.”
On the line in the 4-3 defense, David Tesone anchored a group, along with Gabriel Zarate, that mucked up the works so the linebackers could roam free.
“Tesone made our defense go,” Granados said. “I got all the glory but he made it really easy for me to do all of that. David was a beast.”
Jesus Lopez might have been the best free safety in the area. He was the fastest defensive back around and could hit like a linebacker.
“During our second game against Mariposa, Chewy laid a hit on their running back Jovian Miller and it was like, ‘BOOM!’” Diaz said. “I never heard anything like that.”
The defense was nasty and hard-hitting.
“I hated playing against our defense on Wednesday nights,” Diaz said. “I’d be running for my life. I was more scared of that defense than any other we faced. By far. … They swarmed to the ball and didn’t care who got the hit. They weren’t Bulldogs; they were pitbulls. They were a bunch of assholes and every hit mattered. They wanted you to remember.”
On offense, tailback Rick Espinoza ran the heavy yards inside, tallying over 1,000 yards that season, while Diaz added over 800 at the Z-back, staying in motion and running one play — a sweep — over and over.
The Le Grand offensive line that opened the holes — "You could drive semis through those holes," one Bulldog said — featured the Beene twins, Matt and Aaron, on the edges, Frank Pena and Michael Camargo inside at the guards, and Ricardo Yanez at center. Tight end Geronimo Avelar also did his share of blocking and pass-catching.
The Bulldogs had someone who could run and throw. Moreno had platooned at quarterback with classmate Jesus Pacheco when the Bulldogs won the Southern League in 1994, when the bulk of that group were juniors. The platoon worked but it always chafed.
Pacheco, a talented baseball player, decided not to play football as a senior, leaving Moreno to throw bullets, darts and rainbows to Avelar and receiver Camilo Lopez.
Lopez, the other half of the other twin-combo on the team, had wicked speed—he ran a 10.89 and Diaz a 10.99 in the 100-meter dash in track that spring—and was fearless attacking balls in the air.
“He was cat quick; just electrifying,” Moreno said. “He had a nose for the ball. I’d throw it as far as I could and watch and think, ‘There he goes. Oh no, he’s not going to catch it,’ and there he was catching it in stride or diving for it to make these incredible grabs.”
Obviously, the 1995 Bulldogs were good. What made them great was being able to close ranks against anyone who thought differently.
“They’re weren’t all the same type of kid, but, when it came to football, they all had the same goal: To play together, for each other, and win a title,” said Raul Alvarez, who coordinated the offense in 1995.
Talented and tight, but the combination didn’t endear them to everyone.
Camargo says whenever the fun-loving Bulldogs acted up at practice or got in trouble at school, their JV coach would throw it in their faces.
If it wasn’t for the talent on this team, you guys wouldn’t be anything but a bunch of $%&*ups! A bunch of grab-asses!
Was it true?
“Well, yeah, a little bit,” Camargo said, chuckling.
Juan DeVarona, the defensive coordinator in 1995, thought that attitude made the team what it was.
“[Their] camaraderie was incredible,” DeVarona said. “I’ve been coaching 27 years. I might have seen a group like that three or four times.”
THE STUBBS EFFECT
By the time the 1995 team converged at Le Grand High School, the planets had aligned, in a hopeful configuration right over Fontes & Geary Stadium, with the arrival of former Merced High assistant Dennis Stubbs.
Stubbs, who won a state title at Merced while working under Mark Speckman, came to Le Grand just in time to catch the 1995 class as sophomores in 1993.
That season, Stubbs began rebuilding the entire program from the ground up. He started by beating the bushes. Le Grand does not field large teams, especially in numbers, but Stubbs convinced 40 boys, at a school with about 350 students, to come out for varsity football.
Le Grand had a weight room but Stubbs added a structured weight-lifting program that included in-season and off-season components.
Though Le Grand always had many two-way players, Stubbs made sure most players handled just one position so they could learn their positions and rest their legs between series.
“Our philosophy was, if you have a great player playing both ways, physically, he has to take plays off and then he’s not as good as he could be,” Stubbs said. “That was my main goal at Le Grand.”
He started staging night practices, essentially a run-through in the same weather and light conditions, on Wednesdays.
Stubbs also beefed up his staff. Alvarez, the current Le Grand offensive coordinator, and Rick Martinez, the current Le Grand head coach, got their start with Stubbs coaching the offense and defensive backs, respectively.
Rob Davey, who’d coached on and off at Le Grand since the late 1980s, coached the offensive line. Former Bulldog star Luis Perez joined the program to coach linebackers.
“He was phenomenal,” Perez said. “Stubbs would stand back and watch, not insist you do it his way. He might say, “Why not try it this way, coach?’ But he always respected my knowledge of the game. Being around that type of coach, you learn how to coach. He let us grow together as a staff.”
Stubbs changed things off the field. He began hitting up local families and businesses to host pre-game team meals every Friday, often the best meal some kids would get each week.
The Bulldogs also got shiny new game uniforms and matching shorts and t-shirts for practices. Their helmets were covered with stickers for great plays, tackles, and touchdowns.
Every week, players looked forward to practices. Game days were epic events as appreciative fans began feeling the change. They may have been students at a small school in the middle of farm country, but the boys who played football felt like stars.
“Some guys came out for the team just to be a part of it,” Moreno said. “And the community and school really rallied behind us. That whole football atmosphere, Stubbs created that.”
Stubbs had a plan and it involved starting from scratch. When he arrived, the varsity team was hauling a 28-game losing streak. After promoting sophomores like the Lopez twins and Avelar to varsity, Stubbs’ first Le Grand team won its first two league games in 1993. The Tri-City community was glowing with excitement.
“It was pretty easy to inspire that crowd,” Stubbs said. “You could tell the kids were excited about football again.”
“I had great kids,” Stubbs said. “Kids from Le Grand High, they buy in. Once you hook them, they’ll run through a wall for you.”
The results were immediate. As sophomores, that class went undefeated during their junior varsity season.
Then expectations grew ever more grandiose when the Bulldogs won a Southern League title as juniors. They earned the right to host the first-ever playoff game at Le Grand High ... against defending D5 state champion Escalon.
No one gave the Bulldogs a shot. Escalon was favored, 21-7. Some players remember the Modesto Bee openly wondering when Escalon would start putting its subs into, what they expected to be, a blowout.
Right rodeo. Wrong bull.
Escalon needed overtime to beat the Bulldogs, 27-21.
Diaz ran back a punt 75 yards for a touchdown that was called back for clipping. That TD would have won the game. Le Grand also missed what would have been the game-winning field goal by a yard.
Le Grand wasn't just in the game; they matched Escalon, a traditional football power, step for step.
“It made us feel we were the team to beat in 1995," Camilo Lopez said.
Cisneros remembers laying face down on the Bulldogs' field at game’s end, inconsolable. The Escalon coach picked him up and said, “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“That made us believe,” Cisneros said.
Home, sweet home. PHOTO COURTESY OF LGHS
During the offseason, buoyed by the pain/performance in the loss to Escalon, the Bulldogs backed up their own talk and growing expectations with daily trips to the weight room, some 20-25 per day for a team expected to field around 40.
Pena remembers guys squeezing into the one car—hoping it didn't break en route and making sure everyone had something to puke in just in case— to get from Planada to Le Grand just to lift.
Cisneros and Nava would take their two-mile runs together out in the orchards. They’d come back and find teammates still working the iron, competing every second.
The physical work was paying off in unexpectedly pleasant ways. Stubbs had his teams compete in 7-on-7 passing leagues in the Fresno area that summer. Much to the surprise of big schools like Buchanan and Clovis West, the Bulldogs held their own with speed and football savvy and the toughness and tenacity that seems to be a birthright for all Le Grand teams.
“We were beating good teams," Granados said. “That kind of gave us a groove for the season.”
But before anyone could start thinking about the season opener against Chowchilla, the ground was shifting underneath the Bulldogs.
Stubbs was being courted.
Stubbs says, when Le Grand hired him in 1993, one LGHS administrator admitted the board knew he wouldn’t stay long at the Division V school. It didn’t matter at the time. Le Grand desperately needed a coach to get a program, then on a 28-game losing streak, back on track.
Stubbs accomplished that in short order, but he got an offer in July 1995 that blew his door off the hinges. Golden Valley, opening up at the other end of Childs Avenue, came calling, asking Stubbs to take the head coaching job at a Division I school.
Stubbs couldn’t say no.
“I was afraid if I stayed in Le Grand, I would have stayed my whole career,” he said.
Stubbs gathered the Bulldogs on campus and told them the news. The team was shocked and angry. Granados, 15 years later, still gets choked up remembering the farewell speech.
“We knew he was there for us but Le Grand is a small school,” Granados said. “We didn’t blame him for it. Not too many people would have stayed in Le Grand but he showed he cared for us.”
Pena was hurt.
“He cried, we cried," Pena said. "We saw him as a friend, but we understood. I probably would have done the same. It was really shocking. We didn’t think we’d lose our coach especially with the promise behind that team. He knew it, too.”
Stubbs, who went on to coach, first, at Golden Valley High then Los Banos, scored his 100th victory as a head coach by beating rival Dos Palos in 2009.
The 2010 season was his 18th as a head coach but he spent two very special years, his first, at Le Grand.
“I wish the last 16 years I’ve coached I’d had kids like I had at Le Grand,” Stubbs said. “They were so easy to coach. They’d do anything for you. It was hard to leave.”
Stubbs put a lot of work into the Bulldogs. He knew the talent he had on hand. That was the main thing on his and everyone else's mind as he told the team goodbye.
While Stubbs talked, the players kept glancing at assistants Raul Alvarez and Rick Martinez, the two Le Grand alumni, as if to ask, "Hey, what do we do now?"
When Stubbs left, everyone waving him goodbye from the front door on Le Grand Road wondered if the team’s shot at a section title was driving away.
This post was edited by Scott Schrader 14 months ago
Thanks for sharing.
It captured the essence of what is to me High School football.
I love HS athletics, to me it is the best level of athletics ..
Thanks. I'll most likey post the second part tomorrow. It came in three parts and it goes into the season in part two and three.
Nice .. I want to learn what happens after the loss of the coach who turned things around ...
DUDE! How you gonna just leave it like that?
Post that ish up!
Cry Havoc; and let slip the dogs of war!
I love the part about the attention given the toughest guy getting off the bus ... send those guys out first ..
Will do, phear. Should I post it as another thread or put it in this one? I'll just post the rest of the story together. I wanted to break it up because I didn't want one long post.
Same thread .. keep it all together ..
PART TWO: An object in motion, stays in motion
Stubbs added structure and professionalism and the result put a winning glint in everyone’s eye.
His departure hurt but everyone soon got back to assuming the 1995 team had everything it needed to make 1995 the year Le Grand would claim its first-ever CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division V title. Stubbs said the team had so many weapons, he knew it would be something special.
Truer words were never spoken.
When the coach brought his new Golden Valley team to meet his old Le Grand team for a scrimmage in Le Grand several weeks later, the Bulldogs again showed they could match anyone and feared no one. Le Grand easily beat Golden Valley, the same squad that would play for the Division I section title later that fall.
The Bulldogs players had faith in their talent, preparation and each other. It was a different story for the coaching staff.
Davey had been coaching on and off at Le Grand since the late 1980s, while studying for his teaching credential, when Stubbs arrived. He was the obvious choice to take over when Stubbs left a month before the start of the 1995 season.
Davey brought in DeVarona to coordinate the defense and kept Alvarez to coordinate the offense with Martinez and Perez working with defensive backs and linebackers.
“I was worried we’d get someone from the outside who’d change things, but they hired Davey and I think it worked out perfect,” Cisneros said.
Still, the 1995 staff were all some combination of new, young and inexperienced. Davey was a first-time head coach. DeVarona was a new defensive coordinator and new to the school. Perez had coached just one year before. Martinez was 23 and Alvarez would turn 22 during the season.
They had cliques. Perez, Alvarez, and Martinez were LGHS alumni; Davey and DeVarona were not. Davey, Perez, Alvarez and Martinez were Stubbs’ guys; DeVarona was not.
The season progressed and the Bulldogs kept piling on wins, but the staff did not always get along. The players were like white on rice; the coaches, at times, were like oil and vinegar.
It’s the one thing upon which all five men still agree 15 years later.
“We were green,” Alvarez said. “It just goes to show how much work and responsibility that the players took [for their talent and goals].”
The seams barely showed and hardly mattered once the season began. The Bulldogs established a rhythm. They had a routine that went something like this:
One player might tempt fate, and his eligibility for that Friday’s game, with some kind of mischief-making in class during the week. (None of the players would own up to specific acts, but they all concur.)
The competition between offense and defense would reach a crescendo at Wednesday night practice.
(Amazingly, brothers Camilo and Jesus Lopez, the wideout and the DB, never battled each other on Wednesday nights when the first-team offense and first-team defense went tête-à-tête. “I didn’t want to hurt him!” Jesus Lopez said, laughing.)
The pre-game meal would be awesome.
Marc Diaz and Camilo Lopez would go outside and throw up the pre-game meal.
Then the Bulldogs would beat up whoever showed up.
Le Grand 26, Chowchilla 15
The season began against Chowchilla, a team that has traditionally owned Le Grand. But these Bulldogs beat the Redskins for the first time in some 20-plus years.
Le Grand hasn’t beaten Chowchilla since.
“I knew we were talented, but honestly I was kind of scared to death,” Davey said about coaching a team so many people expected to win big. “It turned into this responsibility. It was nerve-wracking until we beat Chowchilla. Then I knew it was going to be OK.”
Le Grand 35, Livingston 7
To prove it was no fluke, Le Grand snapped an even longer losing streak by blasting Livingston.
Le Grand 56, Avenal 7
To prove they were still kids, the Bulldogs looked past Avenal, which wasn’t expected to present much of a challenge.
During film review for Avenal, the coaching staff left the room and the team immediately began goofing off. Too loose. Too confident.
They quickly woke up when Avenal scored on its opening drive. An angry, embarrassed bunch of Bulldogs ran off 56 straight points.
Le Grand 33, Mariposa 10
The Bulldogs went up the hill for a battle and came down with a decisive victory.
Hold that thought ...
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Bulldogs were enjoying themselves in ways only teen-aged football players can.
DeVarona remembers getting called into superintendent George Hines’ office and finding half the team inside getting dressed down for trying to cut school.
DeVarona said he was trying to cover for the kids when he noticed Gene Perez—Perez and Diaz were the team comedians—with a camera, kind of hidden in the mass of people, filming the meeting on the sly.
Hines finally caught on and, as the story goes, spent time trying to get the tape back.
“It was a childish, high school-type thing,” DeVarona said. “That team was so good, someone was always trying to keep them in check. It was a fight all year long to keep them eligible and going on the right path.
“The one thing that kept them together was football.”
Le Grand 19, Orestimba 17
The players and coaches from that team say Le Grand played some truly talented teams back in those days, bigger schools, physically bigger teams, teams with true football traditions and resources.
Back then, even a Le Grand at Orestimba game was a big deal. The 1995 game was already a battle for Southern League supremacy between unbeaten teams but heavy emotions also weighed it down.
Just days earlier, one of the Orestimba players lost his parents in a shooting. Orestimba held a memorial ceremony on the field before the coin-toss that went on for 30 minutes. The Bulldogs, trying to stay warm, listened to the sad tale and wondered how they were supposed to play football on such a night.
“It was a good, close game but everyone was kind of out of it,” Pena said.
The Bulldogs played tight, though Espinoza had twice nearly broken runs for touchdowns.
Trailing in the fourth quarter, Le Grand’s offense was sputtering and Alvarez wondered what trick to pull out of his playbook.
Pena knew. He pulled and blocked for Espinoza on the play they’d almost broken twice before. Both times, Espinoza got pulled down by his shoelaces. So Pena said, “Counter.”
Espinoza hit one of those double-wide holes and blasted the counter play for 80 yards and the winning score.
“That whole game was eye-opening for us,” Camargo said. “Playing kids going through what they were going through, it was tough. Tough to handle, tough to win, just tough.”
Le Grand 38, Denair 17
The Bulldogs recall being worked up after hearing that Denair was talking mad business about their intention to beat Le Grand in another Southern League tilt. Back then, Denair had ball players. The Coyotes were a tough program. It was no idle threat.
But, looking to remind the Coyotes just what was what, Granados said Davey had them walk slowly onto the field in one long line of players, 40-plus strong.
Then, while blowing them out, the Bulldogs showed the Coyotes just what was what.
Every time the Bulldogs played, especially after beating Chowchilla to start the season the right way, the stands at their home field at Fontes & Geary Stadium and on the road were packed.
At school, at work, at church, at the store, community members would come up and tell the players how excited they were to watch the Bulldogs.
Kids would follow them around, later claiming their favorite Bulldogs during pickup games behind the bleachers on game nights.
It was all the best parts of Friday Night Lights.
"Even after games, we'd all hang out at different people’s houses," Jesus Lopez said. "The families would invite us and even our families were invited and a part of it. it was fun with those guys. No one thought they were better than anyone else. it was an awesome feeling."
Le Grand 35, Modesto Christian 0
The Crusaders hadn’t scored all season long when the Bulldogs rolled in. The Bulldogs felt pressure to not be the first.
The victory was a memorable one for Camargo, who was a team captain and had a special fan in the stands that day — his godfather, Machi Flores.
Camargo had been raised as a young child by Flores and spent summers with the trucker from Mendota and his family. Four months later, Flores passed away.
Camargo said it was the only time his "other father" would see him play.
Hughson 42, Le Grand 20
The law of gravity asserted itself against Hughson, a small school power and the defending Division IV champions. Hughson went up, so the Bulldogs had to come down.
Le Grand 14, Central Catholic 14
Central Catholic had the same intimidating football reputation as Hughson. Cisneros remembers getting off the bus in Modesto, taking one look at the hulking Central Catholic players and thinking, “Holy s#%*.”
Shrugging it off, the Bulldogs took a 14-0 lead, though Central fought back to tie it.
Le Grand was playing without starting center Ricardo Yanez during the game and felt the loss on offense as Central’s defense chased Moreno all night long.
The Bulldogs were in the game but had to have it, too. A loss would put their Southern League title shot in danger. They were staring at defeat when Central drove the field to set up for the game-winning field goal with just seconds left in the game.
Le Grand called a timeout and hatched a plan. DeVarona told Tesone to occupy his man and pull him to the side to create a lane for Nava.
Then, according to legend, Nava told DeVarona, “It won’t work,” and DeVarona replied, “Trust me, bro.”
Nava blasted up the middle, right off of Tesone’s shoulder and blocked the kick as time expired.
Gustine 26, Le Grand 12
Gustine beat Le Grand in 1994 and 1995 but the Bulldogs made it a easier in 1995.
They’d already made the playoffs. They admit they felt they had nothing to play for. They were also missing Tesone, who was injured.
“We had a sophomore in my spot,” Granados said. “I could hold my own at Tesone’s spot but that guy wasn’t going to replace me and no one was going to replace Tesone.”
At halftime, Davey ripped into the team. The gist of the dressing-down? The guys with the talent and skill to do most things right, were doing most everything wrong.
The team shakes its collective head even 15 years later. The consensus? Gustine always had their number.
Whatever the reason, the Redskins made the Bulldogs pay and the result was a three-way tie for first place in the Southern League.
Seeing the Bulldogs after the loss, the wheels started churning in Davey’s head. He didn’t like how the Bulldogs reacted. They look depressed, he thought. He said he scratched his head all weekend, trying to figure out what to do to get them back on track.
Le Grand 41, Bret Harte 40
Even great football teams need a little luck. The Bulldogs got theirs during a coin flip.
Le Grand won the coin-flip to break the three-way tie for the Southern League championship. It gave the Bulldogs the No. 1 seed in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 playoffs and the right to host a game for the second time in Le Grand history.
Then nothing went right. Bret Harte took a 21-0 lead. Cisneros said the Bulldogs defense was reduced to apologizing to the offense for letting it get so bad. Alvarez and Martinez said you could feel the crowd kind of slink down and mumble, "Oh, here we go again."
But something significant had changed over the previous six days. The Bulldogs were using a new offense Davey installed after the loss to Gustine.
Alvarez ran the fly offense all season that utilized great blocking for Espinoza inside and the speed of Camilo Lopez and Diaz outside. After Gustine, Davey said parents and fans bombarded him with requests to add some power plays. He agreed.
“The guys were so depressed, the cracks were showing,” Davey said.
During the film session, Davey popped in a season highlight film of the Bulldogs’ great plays and the mood in the room changed.
“Then I said, 'This is what I’m going to do,;” Davey said.
Enter the “scram blast” offense — Nava and Granados at tight end and Carlos Leon, a strong sophomore called up for the occasion, behind Moreno. The idea was to use the fulltime linebackers for extra blocking bulk and run at people.
After going through the new offense to a receptive group of players, Davey left the session to meet the Bret Harte coaches to exchange film. The coaches talked and Davey said he underplayed and bluffed the situation as much as he dared.
Oh, man, we’re beat up. We just lost. We hope we can give you a good game.
The Bret Harte coaches ate it up. One of them even smiled.
Bret Harte, which prepared to stretch its defense to cover the field horizontally and vertically, all of a sudden had to deal with plays coming up the middle. Bret Harte tried to cheat to one side or the other with its linebackers. When running the scram blast, the Bulldogs simply adjusted on the fly, on the field.
“We had to make them honest,” Camargo said. “They were overloading so we had Ruben just call nicknames of the guy on either side of the line so we knew where to run the play.”
Nearly everyone had a nickname.
Camargo was Puerca. Pena was Pierna or Flintstone. Cisneros, a Nirvana fan, was Cobain. Moreno was Helmet Head.
“We used to stay he didn’t need a helmet because the gel on his head was so hard,” Camargo said.
Nava was Hank, after former Loyala Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers. Matt Beene was Bambi. Avelar was Cebolla.
Granados was Psycho. (He once smacked himself in the head after missing a pick-6 as a sophomore and Psycho was born.)
Aaron Beene’s nickname cannot be repeated in polite company.
“Bret Harte didn’t know who we were and they didn’t know Spanish,” Camargo said. “That’s how we ended up winning the game."
Down 21-7, the Bulldogs first took to the air to claw their way back into the game. They'd been working on something all week that had Leon throwing the ball.
“I kept telling Carlos, ‘I hope you have an arm, because I’m going to be gone,” Camilo Lopez said.
Sure enough, Alvarez called their number and Lopez told Leon, "Just air it out and I’ll try to catch it."
Moreno tossed to Leon who was sweeping to the left, then Leon stopped and flung the ball 30 yards. Downfield, one Bullfrog was covering Lopez man-to-man, step for step down the sideline until Lopez sprinted ahead one precious step.
They both went up for the ball. Guess who came down with it?
“I couldn’t believe I caught it,” Camilo Lopez said, laughing at the memory.
Lopez raced another 30 yards for the touchdown, electrifying the Bulldog faithful. Then he poured it on, circling back in front of the home stands, ripping off his helmet and bowing to a maniacally appreciative capacity crowd.
“We were talking about it today at alumni practice,” Lopez said. “Moey Diaz remembered the whole thing. It was unbelievable. People were going crazy. That was one of my proudest moments as a football player.”
“I don’t think we ever felt out of the game,” Nava said. “That [victory] was a high point for me. I felt like all the stuff we had been practicing came together.”
“We were kind of dropping off as the season went on,” Cisneros said. “We scored tons of points but then we didn’t. To see our offense blow it up in the playoffs was awesome.”
“That was the best game I ever played," Pena said. "All the games we ever lost, I never cried. But when we beat Bret Harte, I did.”
The Bulldogs pulled off another first, the first playoff win in Le Grand High football history.
“Not a lot of people gave Davey credit for that [offense against Bret Harte],” Matt Beene said. “I’m a firm believer that he got us through that game.”
“It revived us,” Davey said of the change in offense. “I had to find some way to bring us back. That was the plan I put together [for Bret Harte]. … To come back to win 41-40, that was the greatest game of my career.”
Still, in the midst of the euphoria, one coach felt stuck and conflicted. For the first time that season, despite the fact that he'd never done it before, Davey was calling the offensive plays. After Bret Harte built a 21-0 first-half lead, Alvarez said Davey turned to him and said, “Now you can call the plays.”
“He had already thrown in the towel,” Alvarez said. “I was like, ‘Gee, thanks a lot.”
The Bulldogs scored five times in the second half as Alvarez tried to pull from both the fly and scram blast. He maintains the fly had more to do with four of those scores, and the victory, than the scram blast.
So when Moreno scored the game winner by running a naked bootleg around the edge into the end zone, Alvarez was thinking ahead and already nervous.
“Beating Bret Harte was like fool’s gold,” he said.
Home, sweet home.
PART THREE: When destiny and reality throw down
Heading into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V title game, the be-all, end-all game of the 1995 team’s football careers, everything seemed to be working in the Bulldogs’ favor.
Way back in week four, the Bulldogs easily and resoundingly set down the Mariposa Grizzlies by 23 points at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. Le Grand would host Mariposa this time around.
The Le Grand offense had perked up against Bret Harte scoring 41 points The Le Grand defense was extra hungry, needing to vindicate itself after giving up 40.
The team felt good off the field. Most of the Bulldogs, eager to show their solidarity, shaved their heads prior to the Bret Harte game to celebrate their second straight Southern League title. When the Merced Sun-Star came to the team’s Thanksgiving dinner to do a story prior to the title game, they ran a picture of a bunch of bald heads smiling back at the camera.
The Bulldogs say they were not overconfident. Some even took extra precautions. When Le Grand had a bye before playing Bret Harte, Diaz, Moreno, and the Beene brothers—all equally appreciative of the pretty girls from Denair—attended the first-round game between the Coyotes and Grizzlies.
“I remember saying, ‘Oh s%&*, they’re good,’” Diaz said.
But the week was a holiday week. Students were let out early on Wednesday. The football families hosted a big Thanksgiving feast on Thursday as other family members rushed to finish painting the field.
The players had nothing to do but practice and think.
This is serious. This is the last time most of us will put on the pads.
“It’s like you want the day to come but at the same time you want it to last a little longer,” Cisneros said. “You had the pressure of playing for the school, for family, for three communities. And against Mariposa? That just made it.”
The situation was more complicated with the staff. During Wednesday night practice, Martinez and DeVarona argued. DeVarona went after Martinez and the two had to be separated. And the practice, typically the best and liveliest of the week, was sloppy.
Also, things between Alvarez and Davey were still tense. One question hovered in the air all week: Who will be running the offense come kickoff?
Ironically, in a newspaper article before the game, Diaz got to brag about the dangerous Le Grand offense.
If you overplay me, Rick [Espinoza] will kill you. If you overplay Rick, I’m going to kill you.
Even with Diaz speaking Bulldog gospel, everyone wondered: Which Le Grand offense will show up?
THE LEGEND OF '40 QUICK'
It would be another 14 years before the Le Grand High community showed up for a Bulldog football game the way they did at Fontes & Geary Stadium the night after Thanksgiving 1995.
Packed stands. Standing room alone. Rival teams on red alert. Bands. Banners. Signs. Reporters. TV cameras. It was the biggest game for both communities in decades.
"It was our Super Bowl," Jesus Flores said.
The Grizzlies had their own worries. Mariposa running back Jovian Miller had a 104-degree temperature the morning of the game. In fact, several Grizzlies had the flu.
“My mom tried to keep me from playing but I told her she was full of it,” Miller said.
Then the game began and the adrenalin surged. Both teams flew to the ball. The crack of each tackle sounded like thunder claps.
Le Grand got on the board first. Diaz had a couple of nice runs during a drive and Nava scored on a 1-yard dive with 2:25 left in the first quarter.
Anyone hoping that would break the dam open was disappointed. Mariposa was able to control the clock with the running game and keep the aggressive Le Grand defense honest with screen passes. Right before halftime, the Grizzlies kicked a field goal to cut the Bulldog lead to 7-3.
“We went with what the coaches wanted,” Granados said. “I wasn’t worried. I figured with our talent and defense we could put up two touchdowns and just hold them.”
During halftime, the most troublesome thing was that Le Grand was playing rather unlike the sleek, speedy machine that had easily handled the Grizzlies, on the road, at the start of the league season. The team that excelled at winning footraces, found itself stuck in a wrestling match.
With the game knotted up in more than one way, things came to a head in the locker room. Though he hadn’t been calling plays, Alvarez began mapping out offensive adjustments at the chalkboard wanting to go back to the fly offense. Davey came in, and according to players and coaches, he and Alvarez argued.
Davey asserted his authority as head coach. Alvarez, realizing halftime of the biggest game ever at his alma mater wasn’t the time to fight, walked out to try to calm down.
The end result: Davey continued directing the offense and Le Grand continued to try to win the battle between the tackles against a bigger, more physical team.
Miller said Mariposa had gotten stronger, and less self-destructive, since playing Le Grand last. He also said Le Grand was playing into the Grizzlies’ hands.
“They got away from running the fly and those sweeps,” Miller said. “They tried to run up the middle on us and that wasn’t going to happen. We were way too physical. … Honestly, I thought we were gong to have our hands pretty full, especially them coming back and beating Bret Harte. I think God was on our side. We didn’t beat ourselves for once.”
In the third quarter, Mariposa had a great chance to move ahead when Miller took a handoff and had broken free out of the middle of the pack.
Jesus Lopez, playing centerfield at free safety, tracked Miller down. Though Miller probably had 40 pounds on him, Lopez leveled him with a big hit that went BOOM into the night and drew a gasp from the crowd. MIller actually fumbled the ball but picked it up. It saved the TD and get Le Grand in the game.
Le Grand then put together a great drive down that had the Bulldogs stealing into the Mariposa red zone. They had a shot to put the game away when Diaz fumbled right at the end of the third quarter.
“After [I fumbled], we had like two or three four-and-outs and that was it,” Diaz said. “We were still trying to run that power stuff. That’s cool but what we beat them with (two months earlier), they didn’t stop.”
Mariposa eventually got into the end zone to take the lead with 4:19 left in the game. Gene Perez partially blocked the extra point to keep hope alive for the Bulldogs.
All they needed was a field goal. Mariposa had controlled the clock all game long. The Bulldogs had 4 minutes to reverse a thoroughly frustrating performance on offense.
It didn't happen. And Alvarez had to watch the offense sputter.
“I felt bad," Alvarez said. "Here these kids are, doing what they’re told to do and trying to do their best but we weren’t playing to stretch the field like they knew how to do. But they’re still out there trying and running as hard as they can.
“It was like watching someone burn, and you have a bucket of water but not throwing it at them.”
The Bulldogs had faced crunchtime before. They’d had trouble, but watching their high-powered offense plod along pained them. As the game wore on, desperation set it. In the huddle, the players openly discussed mutiny. More than one suggested they start calling their own plays.
“We wanted to play like we did all year but were never allowed to,” Pena said.
Other coaches and players tried to convince Alvarez to do something. Alvarez said he tried a few times to talk to Davey on the sideline but Davey ignored him.
As the four minutes became three, then two, then one, Camilo Lopez and Diaz, the two fastest cats on a high-powered offense, stood together five or 10 yards away, talking, fretting, openly wondering, "What the #$%&!"
The game was within reach the whole time.
“It was all zeros,” Mariposa’s Miller said. “There was no point when I thought we had it until it was over.”
With four seconds left in the game and Le Grand about 40 yards from the end zone and victory, Davey called the most infamous play in Le Grand history — a quick screen.
Ask any member of that team now, “What was the call?”
From South Dakota to Montana, from Los Angeles to Fresno, and all the way up the San Joaquin Valley through Le Grand, Planada, Merced, and into Sacramento, the 1995 Bulldogs reply in unison …
Cisneros dropped his head and kneeled down on the sideline.
Pena looked at the clock in disbelief as Grizzly fans flooded the Bulldogs field to celebrate Mariposa's first section title.
Luis Perez felt like someone in his family had died.
Camilo Lopez took out his hurt on a water bucket.
Nava stared at the scoreboard, willing the numbers to change.
Everywhere Matt Beene looked he saw people he cared about — brother, Aaron, parents, friends, all the little kids who idolized the Bulldogs. Everywhere he looked, he saw tears running down people's faces.
Standing at the 40-yard line, the last line of scrimmage of his football career, Granados put his face into the turf and bawled like a baby.
The stands emptied. The crowd made their way to their cars, some to find their cars had been vandalized.
The field emptied. Players went back to the locker room. Davey had them hand in their gear that night.
Sometime after the game, the stadium was deserted.
Yet the lights above the field shone on one lonely figure, sitting inconsolable in the cold and the mist and the detritus of the football game.
Cisneros couldn’t bring himself to get up.
The dream he shared with his best friends had just been ripped out of their chests.
Unceremoniously. Cruelly. Unbelievably.
Heart, talent, skill. Destiny, desire, ganas. You mean, all of that wasn’t enough?
No, Cisneros couldn’t leave.
Leaving would make it real.
The aftermath was ugly.
Camilo Lopez confronted Alvarez after the game, thinking then that it was Alvarez who had refused to switch up the offense and give the Bulldogs a shot.
Angry, sad, and bitter fans, parents and alumni had plenty to say to the coaches after the game, laying blame and wanting answers.
Most of the team and their families gathered at the Beene home, where their parents had organized what they’d hoped would be an epic victory party.
It turned into a postmortem.
At one point, according to the coaches, Alvarez, Martinez and Perez were commiserating in one corner when Davey and DeVarona came by to ask why they were so sad.
Apoplectic, Perez replied, “Man, you guys don’t understand what the #$%& just happened! You don’t know how many people have been waiting for a chance like this!”
Community anger swelled the next morning when everyone read the game story in the Merced Sun-Star. Davey was asked about the key plays and mentioned some bad officiating calls and Diaz’s fumble.
“He was right that Marc lost the ball but the game plan was faulty,” Nava said. “It left a lot of people disappointed in him because he had thrown Marc under the bus.”
The post-defeat acrimony lasted for months. Spring came smelling sweetly of renewal, but it failed to cover the acrid stench of heartbreak.
Avelar got kicked out of school and never graduated from Le Grand.
Pena and Davey argued several times, including a few public yelling matches in the halls of Le Grand High. Pena was like everyone else; he wanted to know what happened in that last game. Davey, angry at being confronted by a student, told him he’d bench Pena as a senior.
Pena, then a junior, and equally angry, quit football.
“I considered us pretty close,” Pena said of Davey. “He coached the O-line and I was on the O-line. He used to call Camargo and me his sons. We were really close to him. I felt he ruined our perfect ending.”
Granados suffered, too.
At the start of the season, Granados was still getting calls from Arizona State, but the loss took his will. His grades went south and he eventually dropped out of school in April. The decision effectively ended his football career.
Granados, the one player with enough size to attract Division I interest, though not the only one to eventually play some college ball, had been invited to showcase his talents for college coaches at regional all-star games. He couldn’t play because he hadn’t graduated.
The next season, Alvarez and Martinez took coaching jobs with Stubbs at Golden Valley, finding it too difficult to face what might have been.
Mariposa won the section title game and the banner, but why did the Le Grand Bulldogs lose?
Nava: “If we end up beating Mariposa, then Davey is a genius. The larger question was, when we were trying the scram blast and it wasn’t working, we didn’t have a contingency plan. … I still think I subscribe to the theory that we lost because we didn’t play our game. We weren’t the same team in that game either.’
Matt Beene: “I think they got better; maybe their scheme was better than ours.”
Pena: “It doesn’t get much easier than coaching that team. I don’t think Davey was in a tough spot. All he had to do was run the offense we ran all year.”
Camargo: “A lot of people will tell you some of the coaching in that game was the reason, but I don’t know if that was it. I guess coaching was an issue in the sense that Stubbs left and maybe we didn’t have the same confidence in [Davey].”
Diaz: “I never took it [like Davey was blaming me for the loss.] Mariposa was a good team. It’s not like they were there for no reason. I don’t blame [Davey] for that; I don’t blame me. For a long time, I blamed myself. Then I heard teammates say the same stuff, ‘Oh, I missed a tackle,' 'I didn’t hit that hole.’ Everyone blamed themselves.”
Davey said everyone should point a finger at the Grizzlies, who “played the best game of their lives.”
Not many 1995 Le Grand players have spoken to Davey since that season. They still don’t know how he thinks or feels about the loss.
Asked recently if he ever thought about going back to the fly during the Mariposa game, Davey said no but wishes he had.
“If we had gone straight with the fly, things may have been different,” Davey said. “It was good for Bret Harte but not a really good offense against Mariposa because they were so big. We needed to finesse them. Plus Mariposa had gotten film the week before and was able to prepare for it. We stung Bret Harte with it because it was a surprise.”
Davey said he made mistakes, specifically mentioning Diaz's fumble in the news article and with Espinoza.
“I made a mistake starting [Carlos Leon],” he said. “I should have started Enrique [Espinoza]. He had 1,000 yards that season. I was thinking about the future, getting Leon some experience and that was a mistake.
“Granados had come to me and begged me to start Enrique and one of the biggest mistakes of my career was not listening to him. It affected the morale of the team. It wasn’t the best situation and we should have had all our ducks in a row to win.”
Alvarez said he was proud of the players.
“They were kids and we were responsible,” Alvarez said. “They never deviated from what we told them.”
Perez still anguishes over how the loss weighed on the players.
“We hurt those kids,” Perez said. “We stole that championship from them. The decisions the staff made cost them the glory of winning the game.”
15 YEARS LATER
Miller still keeps in touch with some of the Bulldogs.
“They were athletes," Mariposa's Miller said of the 1995 Bulldogs. "They were good. They were really good."
Which team was better?
“Well, who won?” Miller said. “We were pretty equal. They tried to beat us at our game and we were better at it in that one game. The time it counted, we were better.”
Davey said he has agonized, and shed a tear, about the way the 1995 season ended. Fifteen years later, he sounds as if he now understands the magnitude of the game for the players and the community.
“Every time I think about it my heart sinks,” Davey said. “It was that powerful of an event in our lives. It sounds silly because it was a football game. But, no, it was more than that.”
DeVarona, now a teacher and coach at Johansen High in Modesto, agrees.
“I was disappointed but, then again, no one was going to take that year away from me and those kids,” DeVarona said. “They were special.
Alvarez, who has molded another high-powered Le Grand offense and team into the sectional semifinals this Friday at Le Grand, still carries residual resentment and disappointment but says he has no regrets.
"It was fun, it's always fun when you players that understand the game," he said. "It makes things easier. We had players in all the right spots. ... But the biggest lesson about this whole thing is that, you can have a person from the outside come in and be a great coach but if he doesn't understand the history of what that game meant to a lot of people, then that’s bad.
"We should have won the game. Obviously a lot of variables impacted that game. We’re still talking about it 15 years later.”
That loss will always be with the players. They say for better and for worse.
Granados: “That’s my one regret, that I had a chance to maybe go play at Arizona State, but all of those chances disappeared. It was the biggest thing in my life at that time, that I ended up quitting and didn’t take advantage of my situation.”
Matt Beene: “It stuck with me for a couple of years. Then you move on and go to college and get married and have kids. I reflect on it periodically. But, man, that 1995 Mariposa team was tough.”
Moreno: “But it doesn’t take away from what a great team and great season we had. To this day, we still share that common respect of being on that team. It’s 15 years later and we’re still part of that team and always will be. I really appreciate those guys. I appreciate how we’ve been able to translate that season success into the rest of our lives.”
Camargo: “Going into our senior year, we felt so good. For three years we built up the momentum for that moment. I think we did reach the mountain at the beginning of that season, but we couldn’t stay there forever. We were very good but I still think we were at our best earlier in the year. By the time we got to the end, it was like we all lost control. … If we had played a month earlier, no question.”
Avelar: “We know we’re from a small town but even being from a small town, we found out that we could make it anywhere. That season changed my life. Like me and Camargo, we live in Sacramento and we’re opening our own bar. That season moved us forward. We still have that drive and it came from football. Believe it or not.”
Nava: “What happened that year is something that lot of us don’t necessarily talk about to each other. We never had that therapy or a way to bring closure and understand how we feel about it today. Don’t get me wrong; we’re all functioning human beings. Even after we lost, I think the community felt good for us. I still believe in my heart the community was proud of us.”
Sometimes the 1995 teammates will watch to a highlight film they all have and relieve the glory.
Jesus Lopez: “I loved watching my brother make all of those incredible catches ... But I haven't [let go of it yet]. I told you, I still watch that tape and I still think we're going to win. It's like I'm missing something. Not winning that game ... it might sound stupid but, yeah ..."
Aaron Beene: “It was fun playing with that group of guys. It was a dynamic year for everybody. We had good athletes, size, speed, agility, no bad attitudes. Everyone appreciated everyone else.”
Moreno: “To this day, there’s the coudla, woulda, shoulda. If we run the fly because we’re faster and more athletic instead of going at them with a power set, we always think we could have won. I guess we’ll never know. … To this day when I go into their gym, I see that banner 1995 section champions hanging there. I look at it and think it doesn’t belong there. … But my life story doesn’t unravel the way it has so far without those guys and that season. Where I am today was shaped by what we did on that football field together.”
Granados: “Second place didn’t matter. But just knowing that something I had seen in elementary school, telling those guys that we were going to break the losing streak, and we did do that. I’m proud of that.”
Assistant coach Rick Martinez: “My best memories about the 1995 team was how they found ways to win. Before they came, no one cared about Le Grand football. Those kids, once they had success, they felt better about themselves. That’s what stays with me.”
Matt Beene: “I wouldn’t trade playing football for anything. I had such a good time playing. If we could have made a few plays, obviously that would have been a better deal for us but we still talk about that game.”
Diaz: “I had a blast all through high school. It was fun. I recommend it to any kid: play sports. Keep your grades up. Athletics are a big part of education and growing up. You face adversity when you lose. You learn from your mistakes and try not to do them again. You carry that with you forever."
Camargo: “To this day, we don’t speak a lot, but if I see them, I love them like brothers. You can’t erase the things we went through; it was fun. But I don’t necessarily see it as just that year.”
Pena: “To walk out of the locker room and around the stadium and seeing people standing around the field and crowded into the lunch area and packed into the stands, not a seat in the house, billboards and sponsors and TV cameras; that’s what I remember—walking in, getting choked up and excited.”
Nava: “I wish I could go back in time. Sometimes I dream about [that game]. I dream about carrying the ball like I’m still playing. I remember those times very, very fondly. I also look at it as a beautiful time because so many people supported us. Those were some of the best times in Planada and Le Grand. The cultural wealth there was so evident in the people who supported and looked after us.”
FOR ARGUMENT’S SAKE
The ache of what Avelar called “coulda, woulda, didn't” lingered for the boys who waited a lifetime to play their one great season.
Since that season, the team has had to say goodbye to two respected teammates—David Tesone and Jesse Lua—who died.
Since that season, the argument about just how good the 1995 team was has raged on.
While the 2010 Le Grand High football team prepares to make its own assault on the first section title in Le Grand history, the 1995 Le Grand High football team still owns a proud legacy. After all, they were:
§ Two-time Southern League Champions
§ The first team to host a playoff game
§ The first team to win a playoff game
§ The first team to play in a section title game
§ The first team ranked (No. 7) in the Cal Hi Sports rankings for Northern California small schools
The boys of 1995 nurtured that legacy on patchy grass elementary school fields and blacktop gridirons.
The players of 1995 honed their talent and skill on the same football field where fathers, cousins and brothers had done the same.
So the men of 1995 still believe they are the only answer to this question:
Which football team was the best to ever play for Le Grand High School?
1995 LE GRAND BULLDOGS
TWO-TIME SOUTHERN LEAGUE CHAMPIONS (1994, 1995)
1995 CIF SAC-JOAQUIN SECTION RUNNER-UP
I copied it straight from my email, so a lot of the things that are bold in the story didn't come out that way when I pasted it. Sorry if it's a little hard to read.
Nice ... I can see the scene with the parents confronting the coaches ... oh man ... better to face a firing squad.
Nicely told, great flow, nice follow up of post season and what happened to the players and coaches.
Hard to replace a coach like Blunt ... thinking Pete here.
High expectations and things do not go according to plan ... life is what happens after the plans are put together.
I see a movie here ... "The LeGrand season of '95"
Awesome...thanks for sharing!
"It's what a brother would do for another brother"
Good read reminds me of when i played. Played w the same friends and group of kids since pee wee live in a small town...senior year 2003 cif champs 14-0!
This post was edited by usc805 14 months ago
My high school story. Forced integration. Racial riots, firebombing the high school. gangs roaming the school corridors and teachers hiding for their lives leaving the students to whatever came their way. Ahhh the memories. Some damn good music though!
Good stuff, Ron - fun story.
Seems like your own version of Varsity Blues.
No mention of the whipped cream bikini though
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