Commentary

California's lights shine on prep football

Updated: October 7, 2008, 3:08 PM ET
By Mark Tennis | ESPNRISE.com

From the peak of Mount Whitney to Death Valley and from the Golden Gate Bridge to Disneyland, you can't get much more diverse than California.

That diversity is apparent in the state's population, its politics and even its high school football.

There are certainly many small towns and even some bigger cities -- especially those in the Central Valley -- where Friday night football evokes the same kind of passion that is famous in other states, particularly Texas.

But in other places, such as San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and city schools in San Diego, the Friday night phenomenon is absent. Games are played often in the afternoons, sometimes even on Thursday, and it can take a sideline pass to see the intensity of the players up close.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
ESPN RISEMarshawn Lynch starred at Oakland Technical High School before going to Cal and the Buffalo Bills.

One Central Valley school that epitomizes the Friday night experience is Dos Palos. The Merced County community, located 60 miles north of Fresno, is home to a high school program that has been No. 1 in its division of the state rankings seven times and has won 46 league championships -- more than any other program in the state.

"Football is just a huge part of this community," said Dos Palos football coach Mike Sparks. "When we have big games at home, people can drive down some of the streets and they are in the only car on the road."

Sparks' team this year is admittedly not one of his best; the Broncos fell to 1-3 last Friday with a 38-34 loss to Sierra of Tollhouse. Still, Dos Palos players enjoy many of the trappings of being a small-town hero.

"How many teams like ours have our own radio station that covers every game?" Sparks asked. "They even have a Saturday morning wrap-up show, and many of [the] kids love to go on and talk. Usually, we also have a lot of businesses around town that are painted up with players' names, and all of our pregame meals are sponsored."

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California's lights shine on prep football.

The winner of this week's matchup will be announced Wednesday, Oct. 8.

Near Bakersfield, Taft's passion for high school football was displayed famously in the 1986 movie, "Best of Times." In the film, Robin Williams and Kurt Russell starred as a a banker and mechanic in the town who want to relive a painful moment from a high school football game and perhaps turn an embarrassing memory into a positive one.

Away from the Central Valley, more towns embrace the Friday night experience. One such place is the Napa Valley, famous for wine, but also well-known in Northern California for its support of high school football.

"Friday is a special day for me and the kids," said Rich Cotruvo, the head coach at Napa's Justin-Siena High. "I'm more focused and have more intensity. I actually start playing the game out in my mind on the drive to school. Even on campus, you can feel a different attitude on Fridays during football season."

Not far from Napa, on the other hand, are the hardened streets of Oakland.

Games are normally played in Oakland on Friday afternoons, but the city's high schools are still churning out top prospects, such as Marshawn Lynch of the Buffalo Bills, and school officials make a special effort so that their kids get at least some semblance of the Friday night experience.

"Higher nighttime security costs and past violence has led to Oakland playing its league games during the day," said Oakland Tribune prep sportswriter Jimmy Durkin. "The result is a more relaxed environment, except on the field, where the competition is still fierce. The thrill of Friday nights under the lights still occurs during the nonleague schedule, and there's a push to change league games back to the nighttime -- part of a proposal passed by the Oakland Board of Education includes a recommendation to review league schedules -- but for now the fun goes on in the afternoon sunlight."

In other cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, similar efforts are made to play nonleague games on Friday nights.

Cathedral Catholic of San Diego gets a taste of both experiences. It takes in the full spectrum of San Diego football as a private school that plays in the City Conference but is located in suburban North County. The Dons play Friday night games against North County powers before big crowds, and afternoon games at inner-city schools with no lights.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
ESPN RISE Cathedral Catholic running back Tyler Gaffney is considering USC, UCLA, Stanford, Notre Dame and San Diego State.

"We like showing what we can do all across the county," Cathedral running back Tyler Gaffney said. "Under the lights is the best, but there is still intensity for the afternoon games. You like it when everybody is talking about the game Friday night and going to the game."

Yet another seemingly uniquely California offshoot of Friday night football is Thursday night football. Partially due to a limited number of playing venues in some communities, particularly in Orange County, there are always Thursday night games. It has also become the best night for local TV broadcasts, so schools will often switch their schedules to gain that added exposure.

Saturday afternoon games are more common in the San Francisco Bay area than in Southern California. They also are scheduled because of long travel distances for schools in the far northern region of the state.

Whether it's Friday night, Friday afternoon, Thursday night or Saturday, California's high school football schedule is spread out all over the map. It is California, after all, and there's a game for every football fan.

Mark Tennis is the executive editor of CalHiSports.com and is a deputy editor of ESPN RISE. He is based in Stockton, Calif. Note: Tom Shanahan and Harold Abend contributed to this story.