Le Grand High's first loss comes in state championship
Vida en el Valle
(Published Tuesday, December 20th, 2011 10:38AM)
CARSON -- Los Perros Chatos from Le Grand High School went into the state Division IV championship game with glitzy numbers.
A 12-0 record built largely on an opportunistic offense paced by senior quarterback Alex Bucio, who had 40 touchdown passes and only two interceptions on the season.
A 21-game winning streak and two Sac-Joaquín Section championships, built around senior running back Daniel Guízar who rushed for 1,906 yards and 35 touchdowns this season.
A team that outscored its opponents 702-133, which included three games with more than 70 points and three shutouts.
In the end, the only numbers that mattered were on the Home Depot Center scoreboard that read: Sierra Canyon 34, Le Grand 13.
Sierra Canyon, a private school in Chatsworth that moved from eight-man football to an 11-player team three years ago, pulled away from a tight 14-13 halftime advantage for the win last Friday afternoon.
Cheerleaders brushed away tears. The players, who probably realized their dream season vanished in the third quarter when the Trailblazers scored 20 points, were showered with positive shouts from the stands where about 2,000 Le Grand fans kept encouraging them.
"You guys are the best we've ever had!"
"It's OK guys, you are still winners in our eyes!"
"You guys are the best we've ever had! Keep your heads up!"
The final game of the season does not define Le Grand football, said head coach Rick Martínez.
"We are a small community and we were on a big stage," said Martínez, who, like his other coaches, is a former player at the 102-year-old school.
"We were televised on FOX sports, and our hometown people were watching this game across the nation," said Martínez, the school's first Latino coach. "We have never experienced anything of this magnitude in all of our lives.
"We had a record fan base present, and all I have to say is that this team has done something no other team has ever done before, and that is bring our community together."
The game began on a promising note when junior kicker Daniel Rosas booted the opening kickoff into the end zone, and then Sierra Canyon quarterback Tyler Stewart's first pass was dropped.
Eight plays later, Stewart connected with Reggie Prince on a 13-yard touchdown pass. The extra point made it 7-0, and Le Grand trailed in a game for the first time all season.
An eight-play, 60-yard drive capped by a 7-yard touchdown sprint up the middle by fullback Tony Slate. The Bulldogs were back in the game, showing that an all-Latino team from a tiny farmworker community could compete on even terms with a school where tuition is almost as much as their parents make in a year. More than 9 out of 10 students are Latino.
The extra point was blocked, making it 7-6 in favor of Sierra Canyon.
Getting to the state championship game was not as easy as a Bucio pass or a Guízar touchdown run. Players, coaches and fans celebrated Le Grand's Sac-Joaquín section title on Nov. 25, then waited a week to see if they would be invited to face the best Division IV team from Southern California.
The word came, and the community sprang into action.
Five rooters buses were chartered.
The school board declared last Friday an official holiday, coining it "Bulldog Day" so students and educators from the tri-communities of LeGrand, Planada and Plainsburg could watch the game at home or travel 4½ hours to the game.
When the team left Thursday morning, Le Grand Union Elementary School superintendent Rosina Hurtado had students make glittery posters and banners. The team buses were escorted by the Merced County Sheriff's Department.
"It was cold and it was raining, but my students were so excited to see the team and cheer them on," said Hurtado.
"These players are their role models. They look up to them. As young as they are, they know how big their accomplishment is and if you ask me what does it mean to them? Well, that if students from their community can have a strong work ethic, good discipline and a desire to be the best, achieving your dreams is not impossible," said Hurtado.
Another kickoff into the endzone by Rosas gave Sierra Canyon the ball at the 20-yard line. The Bulldog defense yielded a 7-yard run to Sean Silverman before forcing the Trailblazers to punt after two incompleted passes.
Le Grand then put on a clinic.
Bucio -- who was discovered tossing a football in a community park by Martínez -- had an 8-yard pass to Julián Nava. Guízar ran for 1 yard, then Bucio connected with Zach Moreno for five yards and a first down on the Sierra Canyon 49.
Facing a crucial third-and-11 at midfield, Bucio connected with Moreno for 15 yards and a first down. A nifty, leaping catch by Jonathan Zaragoza for 21 yards was followed by a 2-yard run and a 7-yard pass to the Sierra Canyon 5-yard-line.
Enter Nava again.
The 5-10, 200-pound fullback powered the final five yards, escaping a face mask hold by a Sierra Canyon defender to give Le Grand the lead at 13-7 with 48 seconds left in the first quarter.
In the stands, fans were screaming "Perros Chatos!"
When John Flores moved from southern California to Planada 29 years ago, he always enjoyed watching the Friday night high school football games. But in no other year, has he attended nearly every single game like he did this season. It was the wins that brought him back each time.
"This team has had a wonderful run since last year. They have been undefeated for a long, long time. When I watched their games, they were truly magical ... phenomenal. I know that they did the best that they could and they have something to boast about. They went to a place no other Merced County team has ever gone. They will always be remembered for making history," said Flores.
Former alumni at last Friday's game can't recall a single event that has rallied so much support nor drawn so much attention as the football team's success.
"I am inspired," said 67-year-old Jim Durán, a former Le Grand player. When friends in Le Grand informed him the team would be playing for the championship title, he debated whether or not he would go to the game.
He initially decided against going, but changed his mind when his wife questioned that decision. Durán packed his bags and took a flight from Sacramento.
"There was no way in the world I was going to miss this game," said Durán.
Fellow teammates from the class of 1961 -- including Concepción Moreno who came to watch his grandson, Zach Moreno; David Lovato, 66, and Frank Gasper, 68 -- came in support.
"We are living vicariously through these kids. We never, ever thought we'd make it to a state championship bowl game way back when we were football players for little ol' Le Grand. And now, here we are. Le Grand is finally on the map. It's a dream come true for us, for the kids and for the entire community," said Gasper.
Le Grand alumni Vicki Adame who traveled from San Jose to watch the game said despite the loss, she was not disappointed in the least.
"This is not an 'awww' moment. This team played with their whole heart. They have tremendous perseverance to get to where they got and they made it. No one is disappointed. In the eyes of the community, these young men are and always will be champs," said Adame.
The beginning of the end came innocently. Sierra Canyon star running back Xavier Menifield rushed for 5 yards, then lost 2 yards on a hard tackle by defensive back Aaron Salcido.
Menifield, however, responded with a 25-yard run.
Just when Sierra Canyon appeared to be on its way, Moreno picked off a Stewart pass to set the Bulldogs up at their opponents' 46-yard line.
Sierra Canyon returned the favor four plays later, when Bucio was intercepted for only the third time this season.
The Trailblazers then drove methodically 90 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, capped by Menifield's 41-yard run.
Sierra Canyon 14, Le Grand 13. Four minutes left in the half.
A week before the game, Martínez had confidence in his team.
"Our kids are committed. They don't go snowboarding in the winters or to band camp in the summers. They don't go to the Caribbean during spring break. They don't have much in this community and that's OK. They enjoy what they can and they are grateful. All they have is youth sports and they love that," said Martínez.
"It's what they do and right now, it's football and they have worked really hard for this opportunity."
Sierra Canyon students have Hollywood stars as parents. Le Grand has blue collar workers as parents.
"We are just little old Le Grand. Here's a team where the majority are Mexican kids who are too often stereotyped and then fly underneath the radar," said Martínez.
"But we are tough and every team has wanted to beat us this year. I tell them going into this game, we can choose to be the hunter or the hunted. With that said, I want them to play at a high level, no matter what the outcome."
And, playing football is something the players know how to do all too well. All of them have played together since their Pop Warner years and consider themselves like family.
"All of us on the team have grown up together. It's pretty special to me that we have been able to play this whole season together because ever since we were little, we loved to play sports. To be in high school together and play a championship game is a great experience for all of us," said Bucio.
He has been thinking about the state championship game a lot.
"This is the biggest game that I will ever play in my life and it's still a new sport for me. Every day I am learning new things. I am trying to think of it as if it's just another game that I am playing," said Bucio.
During his sophomore year, Martínez was driving around town when he caught a glimpse of Bucio at a local park. From a distance, he saw Bucio throw a football across the field and immediately noticed an untapped talent.
"All of the coaches came up to me and asked me if I wanted to be the quarterback. I wasn't sure at first and didn't think I wanted to do it, but it was the best decision I have ever made. I've experienced success these two years as quarterback and it's been very special to me," said Bucio.
Trailing for the second time in the game, Le Grand could muster only six yards on its next possession and had to punt. Bucio showed his diverse skills with a 59-yard punt to the Sierra Canyon 10-yard line. Sierra Canyon moved 84 yards before time ran out.
"I told my players this was going to be a slugfest," Martínez told a television reporter at halftime. "This is the best game to be in, instead of blowing (opponents) out."
Sierra Canyon responded with three consecutive touchdowns: Danny Jordan, 7-yard run; and, touchdown runs of 2- and 7-yards by Menifield.
The scoring was over.
Football is more than a game for Guízar, Le Grand's star running back. The sport had kept him away from drugs and violence, two things that always seem to make the headlines in Le Grand.
They don't define the community says Guízar.
"If I didn't play sports, there wouldn't be anything to do here. Yes, there are gangs and there's not a lot going on. If it wasn't for football, I'd probably be out there on the streets too, but I am not," said Guízar.
He chooses to see the cup half full, not half empty.
"I know there is a lot of bad things that can go on in the community and all communities for that matter, but there is also a lot of good and in our community. I know there is nothing but hard working friends, parents and families who work hard day in and day out to put food on the table and clothes on our backs," said Guízar.
When it comes to following advice, he listens to his role model, older brother, former Le Grand player Alex Guízar.
"When he sees me play, he says he is playing through me and he lives through me as if in spirit as if he is also on that field playing. He tells me to stick to sports and have fun and to never make bad decisions," said Guízar.
His family booked six hotel rooms and car-pooled to Friday's game.
Saturday, Martínez remained proud of his team.
"We are going to take the month off, enjoy the holidays and start fresh next year. That's all the planning we can do for now," he said.
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