Subscribe

Benefield: Why Tomales has a role to play in Windsor-Casa Grande game

Windsor head coach Kevin Ballatore, right, talks with his players during football practice on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

KERRY BENEFIELD,

It’s not a game that will likely factor into the North Bay League football title chase, nor have any effect on the North Coast Section Div. 2 seeding, but the winner between Casa Grande and visiting Windsor High School Friday will get serious bragging rights.

But it’s less to do with the Gauchos versus Jaguars and more to do with the Tomales Braves.

Huh? What does a tiny school, enrollment 155, situated 20 miles due east of the Casa Grande campus have to do with Friday's North Bay League tie-up?

A ton, actually.

Four coaches on the Casa staff, including head coach Denis Brunk, are ex-Tomales football players. An additional Casa coach, Leon Feliciano, spent nearly two decades as the Tomales head coach.

On Windsor’s sideline, there are three Tomales guys, including head coach Kevin Ballatore.

So tangled is the Tomales family tree in this game that Ballatore’s dad, Spirito, was Brunk’s quarterbacks coach at Tomales. Frank Giammona, an assistant at Casa, played center to Brunk’s quarterback.

Windsor receivers coach Kyle Burbank was a Tomales teammate of Ballatore’s. And Feliciano coached not only Ballatore, but Burbank and Windsor’s defensive backs coach, Bailey Tucker.

There will be a test on that later.

The Jaguars are 2-4 overall and 1-2 in league and the Gauchos are 1-6 overall and 0-3 in league, so bragging rights are about all that are on the table for either team at this point.

But with this crew, it’s enough.

“The Casa Tomales guys are fired up, I’ll tell you that,” Feliciano said.

The Windsor Tomales guys are fired up, too. You can tell by the silence. Turns out that Ballatore, who still addresses Feliciano as “Coach,” talks with him regularly, about life and football and coaching. Not this week.

“It’s at least weekly,” Ballatore said of his conversations with his old coach. “This is probably the first week I (didn’t) talk to him.”

There is some serious love and respect happening, but also a real need to win. It’s part of the Tomales way.

“I know all 10 games are important, but there are a few that stand out and this is one of them,” Feliciano said.

And it stands out for reasons the current players probably can’t yet understand.

“The kids are, ‘What the hell? You guys keep talking about this tiny little school,’” Feliciano said.

It’s a tiny little school that has produced some big talent. And perhaps an even bigger love of the game.

Giammona and Brunk played on the 1983 Tomales team that won the North Coast Section title. Giammona said only small-school guys can understand the toughness that it takes to field a successful small-school team.

“The guys that played at small schools and coach small schools, they understand what it takes for those kids to get on the field every day,” he said. “They have to go every way, they have to punt, punt return, kick off, kickoff return. You name it, they are on the field.

“There is small school pride,” he said. “Every team that came and played us knew that they were in a game. There was just the pride of being tough.”

Ballatore and Brunk — both now coaches at big schools — have said they have tried to infuse their programs with more than a little dash of Tomales toughness.

“That is one of our goals … it’s our responsibility to make sure we give the other team the best game possible,” Ballatore said.

Feliciano and his guys call it “smash-mouth football.” Brunk, the quarterback, called it “blue collar.” Giammona called it “hard-nosed, punch-you-in-the-face football.” It makes sense that he played center.

Call it what you will, the idea is the same.

So when Brunk was building his coaching staff at Casa in his first year, he gravitated toward former Tomales guys.

“That structure, I call it blue-collar football, nuts and bolts, Xs and Os,” Brunk said. “That structure and discipline that I believe in, I know those guys share.”

Same goes for when things go astray.

“My way of discipline? It always comes back to the Tomales way,” he said.

What does that mean?

“It’ll be a hot conversation, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

Feliciano said that the Tomales way was about discipline, but also built up a love of the game. It’s proven in how many guys are now teaching the game to others.

So the Jags and the Gauchos aren’t surprised by the Braves’ influence on both sidelines. It makes perfect sense.

But this isn’t a conversation they’ve had. Remember, they aren’t talking right now.

Giammona said, he too, speaks with Ballatore regularly. But this week? Radio silence.

“It’s interesting — we have not talked this week,” he said. “But if I was a betting man, I would say we go out and get something to eat after the game.”

My bet? A Tomales guy is buying.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.