STOCKTON — Much has changed since Tony Franks, a former UC Davis lineman and a longtime football coach, was playing for St. Mary’s High in the mid-1970s.
“Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth,” said a light-hearted Franks, in his 19th year coaching his alma mater, “and football players wore leather helmets.”
Since Franks donned St. Mary’s green and white as a player, and came back for his first stint as head coach from 1984-1986, St. Mary’s has morphed from a reliable San Joaquin County playoff team into one of Northern California’s best.
Franks returned in 2002, and has a record of 149-45: a winning percentage of .768.
Cardinal Newman faces the Rams for a fourth consecutive season, and is seeking its first win in the series when the two meet at 7 p.m. Friday in Santa Rosa.
Hearing “St. Mary’s” may not carry the same cachet as “De La Salle,” but it’s getting there gradually. Last season, the Rams captured their third Sac-Joaquin Section championship, and first CIF NorCal bowl win, before losing in overtime in the state Division 1-AA championship to Cathedral Catholic of San Diego.
Not to mention, the program has become the football destination for high school standouts throughout the region, and a home to sublime facilities. St. Mary’s has opened an athletic center in the past few years — including a weight room, locker room, classrooms and coaches’ offices — worth roughly $3 million.
While underfunded public school programs throughout the state struggle to scrape together the basic equipment to properly train their players, St. Mary’s has flat-screen TVs on the sideline on game day to analyze film between series.
“Now, the game is more of a statewide interest,” said Franks, a former Santa Clara and UC Davis assistant who was a finalist for the Southern Oregon head coach opening this summer.
“It just takes an army of people working together to field a program at this level.”
But Franks hopes the close-knit essence of the program from the ’70s — when Duane Isetti, now St. Mary’s press box’s namesake, was head coach — is still thriving. It’s still a small school, with a student body between 800-900, after all.
As far as his own tradition, Franks intentionally schedules as many fellow strong, parochial programs as he can in the preseason. That includes an ongoing series with Cardinal Newman and coach Paul Cronin, whom Franks lauds every year.
St. Mary’s (1-0) has won all three recent matchups with Cardinal Newman (1-0), but it hasn’t been easy. The last time the Rams trekked to Santa Rosa, they escaped with a 35-34 win via a last-second defensive stand.
“The last time we were down there, (Cole Norgaard) was playing defensive end for us and had to make a stop on (former Newman quarterback Jordon) Brookshire on a two-point conversion attempt at the end of the game, to win the game by one point,” Franks said.
“ … It’s a dandy game for both of our schools.”
It’ll be the first time, at least in their recent matchups, when the Rams have faced a Brookshire-less Newman team. Brookshire performed well last year in St. Mary’s 49-32 win against Newman in Stockton, when the Rams didn’t pull away until the second half.