Placer wins legal, gridiron battles

OAKDALE, Calif. -- It turns out that a court ruling wasn't the only decision in the past few days that went in favor of the Placer (Auburn, Calif.) High School football team.

A few of coach Joey Montoya's decisions paid off during his team's CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoff game Friday night at Oakdale.

Placer, the team that thought it had played its final game two weeks ago, before a judge put it back in action, pulled off a 27-14 upset victory and will now play in the section semifinals next week at Dixon.

"It was just a very emotional week," said Montoya, a graduate of the school. "There were a lot of ups and downs. But hats off to these kids for really stepping up and putting their hearts into this game."

The Hillmen (7-4) were generally regarded as two- to three-touchdown underdogs entering their game against the Mustangs, which had won eight straight games and were the defending champions of the playoff division.

But the David versus Goliath story line is not what prompted all three network TV stations based in Sacramento (nearly 100 miles away) to send camera crews through thick San Joaquin Valley fog to capture images of the action.

The first-round section playoff game was supposed to be between Oakdale and Colfax on Nov. 21. The Colfax bus had already traveled 50 miles to Sacramento, and many of Oakdale's famous tri-tip sandwiches, which are sold at Oakdale home games to raise money, were already made.

That game was postponed at the last minute because of a temporary restraining order issued by an Alameda County judge. The Colfax bus turned around, the tri-tips were donated to local firemen, and attorneys began working on their briefs. At the same time, players from both Placer and Colfax wondered what would happen and the rest of the seven teams already in the playoffs wondered how their own practice schedules might be impacted.

The judge, Frank Roesch, ordered a hearing on the eligibility of a Placer player, senior running back Dalton Dyer, who had been ruled ineligible by the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section nearly one month ago. Because Placer athletic director Mark Lee did not file the proper hardship transfer paperwork on Dyer's behalf, Placer administrators originally agreed with the decision. The school was prepared to accept five forfeit losses, including one to Colfax, a team the Hillmen had beaten on the field.

A Placer parent and attorney, Art Woodward, took action, based on what he felt were inequalities in the case because Dyer is in foster care and has no legal parents. Dyer had moved from a foster home in Vallejo to live with an aunt in Auburn and transferred from Bethel High School to Placer.

Woodward wasn't alone in representing Dyer. Attorneys for the National Center for Youth Law, based in Oakland, took the case and viewed it as an issue of foster child rights, one that could have ramifications for foster children competing in high school sports throughout the state.

At the hearing Monday, attorneys for the National Center for Youth Law argued that because Dyer is a foster child, he essentially is a "family of one" and that no hardship papers regarding his transfer to Placer last summer were necessary.

Superior Court Judge Judith Ford, who heard the case Monday, agreed with the National Center for Youth Law. It was one of just a handful of instances in the past 30 years that the California sports governing body had not prevailed in an eligibility case.

Judge Ford's decision reinstated Placer's forfeited victories -- lifting the Hillmen into the playoffs and a first-round date with Oakdale. Colfax administrators did not appeal the case.

As the teams warmed up Friday night, many in the media had already started writing the ending to Placer's story.

And in the first quarter, the game lived up to expectations.

The Mustangs needed just five plays to score on the opening series, as senior running back Nicky Batteate had jaunts of 15, 15 and finally 24 yards for the touchdown. Oakdale looked like it would score similarly on its second possession, but a holding penalty pushed the Mustangs back. They had to settle for a 25-yard field goal attempt that missed.

After collecting just one first down on each of its first two possessions, Placer's offense suddenly sprang to life early in the second quarter.

In the span of just four plays and just over one minute of the clock, the Hillmen completely turned the game around. A 32-yard run by Asher Gotzmer was followed by quarterback Matt Ross' connection with Gotzmer for a 36-yard touchdown.

The Hillmen recovered the ensuing onside kick, and Montoya called for a deep pass on the next play to keep the momentum on their side. Ross lofted the ball over Oakdale's safeties to Gotzmer for a 44-yard touchdown. Two quick possessions turned into a 13-7 lead for Placer.

"Those plays gave us the confidence we needed," Montoya said. "I always like to have a bag of tricks for every game and felt it was the right moment to try the onside kick."

The Hillmen took a 19-7 lead into halftime, thanks to a 56-yard drive that ended in a Jake Lopez 4-yard touchdown run.

In the second half, Oakdale got its running game going on an 11-play drive which featured Isaiah Borba's power bursts through the middle. He converted on one fourth-down play, which set up Tim House for a 1-yard plunge that cut it to 19-14.

But the Hillmen refused to relinquish control. Montoya went for it on fourth down from his team's own 43-yard line. Ross quick-snapped on a sneak to pick up the first down, and Lopez later scored on a 5-yard run.

Oakdale's last opportunity to get back into the game ended midway in the fourth quarter, when Borba fumbled inside the 5-yard line. The ball bounced toward the pylon at the goal line and appeared to go out of bounds. Officials ruled, however, that Placer's Griffin Quick recovered the ball at the 1-yard line.

The Oakdale defense wasn't able to hold Placer from that point.

"We took 10 days off not knowing if we were going to play or not," said an ecstatic Ross, who also had an interception on defense in addition to his two touchdown passes. "It was hard to come back, but we did it and I'm so proud of everyone. We're proud to be Hillmen tonight."

Gotzmer finished with 12 carries for 109 yards, plus three catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns. Dyer had one 27-yard run and finished with five carries for 32 yards.

"There was little hope that we'd even be here," Gotzmer said. "Most thought that when Monday came we'd be out. We were in, and by that night [when we found out], we were practicing and everybody was getting ready to go."

Oakdale's two running backs, Batteate and Borba, both went over 100 yards; Batteate ended with 18 carries for 148 yards while Borba had 21 for 129.

Mustangs coach Trent Merzon took responsibility for the defeat.

"We just didn't play well enough to win, and that's my fault," he said. "You've got to take advantage of your opportunities and we didn't do that."

When asked whether not knowing if his team would play Colfax or Placer until Monday night was an issue, Merzon said it wasn't.

"That's not who we are," he said. "I don't want to point fingers at anyone."

"It was just such an emotional roller coaster," said Lisa Hennen, mother of Placer defensive back Kyle Hennen. "And it is such an awesome feeling that they came through the way they did. I wasn't worried at all at the beginning. They are a great group of young men."

Mark Tennis is the deputy sports editor of ESPN RISE.