If you build it, they will come
Matt Watson remembers when the football landscape began to change at Folsom High.
Watson, a 2003 graduate of Folsom High who’s coached here for the last decade, was in his junior year in early 2002 and the Bulldogs had a new head football coach in Troy Taylor.
“I can remember him saying the first time he met with the team ‘times have changed,’” Watson said. “That’s the one thing I can clearly remember.”
Prior to Taylor’s arrival, there was no offseason football program. Kids showed up the first day of practice and starting working toward the season.
“We had two-a-days for the first week of practice,” Jordan Banning said, a 2001 graduate who’s in his 17th season of coaching at the school, the last seven as the team’s junior varsity head coach. “It was called ‘Hell Week’ because we practiced in the early morning and then had our normal practice in the afternoon. That’s where guys got in shape for the season. You could never walk that first week because you were so sore.”
Taylor didn’t come up with the idea of making football a year-round phenomena, but he knew it’s what had to happen if he was going to build a winning program.
“It’s nothing about the previous staff, it’s just how high school football in this area was back then,” Folsom varsity coach Kris Richardson said. “I loved coaching with Rich Barboza and Steve Burgess and those guys. Back then, you just hoped kids lifted on their own and hoped they were doing something to stay in shape. You saw the guys in the spring so you knew who wanted to play, but there was no summer football. We had no weight room to fit a team. We didn’t have a weight room built for success. We’d have voluntary lifting and 15 guys would show up and that was about it.”
Back in the 1990s, Richardson was on the junior varsity football staff headed by Jim Noble. He moved up to the varsity staff under Robert Reed in 2001 and then stayed on when Taylor came to town in 2002.
Watson was there to witness the change of expectations for the players.
“Troy brought a culture change as to who he wanted as football players,” Watson said. “I remember some of our top players were suspended and missed a game against Oak Ridge, our big rival, because they were goofing off. He brought accountability.”
Richardson said, “You want to take a vacation over the summer with your family, fine. But if you want to hang out on the lake with your friends and not come to practice, that’s not the kids we were looking for.”
Taylor also brought a new offense, which was expanded when Richardson became head coach in 2005, one that featured spreading the field and passing a lot more than the Bulldogs were used to.
“We were always double-wing, double-tight and running the ball,” Watson said. “I played defensive back and had never played offense. Troy brought the passing offense. My senior year I played receiver and l caught the most balls in the Delta League. I loved it.”
The offense, as the coaches tweaked it and players became more familiar to it, had a big impact on the program’s success. Changing the culture and building a winning program, however, took a good six or seven years. Success did not happen overnight. Taylor didn’t have much success in his three seasons as head coach, as the team won as many games as it lost, 15.
“Back in the day, we were in the Sierra Valley Conference and would win seven or eight games a season, but could never beat Oak Ridge or Cordova,” Richardson said. “Then they moved us to the Delta League where Elk Grove and Jesuit were the powers and Laguna Creek had some good teams. We weren’t happy to be in the league, but our kids competed. We could never get into the playoffs because of Elk Grove and Jesuit. We were overmatched.”
As the culture continued to change and grow, Folsom became a powerhouse. The Bulldogs made the playoffs in 2006, but were whipped by Elk Grove, 54-10, much like the Bulldogs defeat opponents now. After missing the playoffs in 2007, the team and program turned the corner in 2008 with a 9-2 record. The first section title came two years later, along with a state championship, and the team has been dominant ever since.
“Changing the culture and building a winning program was a long-term process and a lot of work went into it,” Richardson said. “We learned a lot in those early years. It took a lot of work and a lot of commitment from a lot of different people. It’s been a journey.”
Recently, it came out that Folsom’s fellow members of the Sierra Foothill League would rather not have them in the league because they feel Folsom has a competitive advantage because the Folsom Cordova Unified School District has open enrollment, allowing student-athletes to move into the district and attend the school, and specifically, play football. Four of Folsom’s top players, Kaiden Bennett, Chandon Pierre and Joe and Daniyel Ngata moved to Folsom from Reno.
“I thought it was ridiculous when I first heard about it, but I wasn’t surprised because a couple years ago some of those schools wanted us and Oak Ridge out of the league,” Richardson said. “I don’t think it sheds a negative light on the program because we’re not doing anything wrong. If Kaiden Bennett and the Ngata brothers were average, every day players, nobody would say anything. If a kid shows up here and is cleared by the CIF, I’m going to coach them the same way I’ve been coaching for 25 years.
“A neighbor of mine who lives three doors down, their daughter went to Ponderosa because they had a 4-H program and she loved it. Del Oro has an agriculture program that attracts students and other schools have other programs that kids are interested in. Here at Folsom, we have a music program and kids transfer here for that. Every school has transfers for various different programs.”
Richardson is not bothered by the schools in the SFL that want them out. He’s also not bothered by the comments he reads on social media, some that have gotten quite ridiculous, he says.
“When that article came out, I received lots of phone calls from some of the top coaches around the area telling me to keep my head up and I told them it’s not down,” Richardson said. “When we won the state championship last year, I got a lot of phone calls from coaches congratulating us and saying we’re representing the Sacramento area well.”