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Benefield: Elsie Allen excited for postseason football debut

Elsie Allen head coach Derek Hester runs a play with his team during practice in Santa Rosa on Monday, November 6, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

KERRY BENEFIELD,

Don’t mind the Elsie Allen football team if they had made other plans this week.

Maybe basketball tryouts? Or soccer? Those both started Monday. There were lots of places the Lobos could have been, but there they were, walking out onto the football field Monday afternoon.

For the first time since the school opened in 1995, Elsie Allen is in the football playoffs. They are seeded No. 12 out of 12 teams in the North Coast Section Division 5 tournament, which meant coach Derek Hester had to make sure the field was even available; what if the soccer team needed it?

“Nobody thought they were going to be sharing the field with the football team, that’s for sure,” Hester said.

A little skepticism is OK. Hester understands. After all, his Lobos are 1-6 overall and 0-5 in the Sonoma County League.

“It does seem a little silly, I guess,” Hester said. “I have never heard of a team with such a drastic win/loss record going to the playoffs, but those are the rules.”

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The Lobos’ only win was their 26-9 victory against St. Vincent in the season opener. It was the school’s first football win since September 2013. It was also against a fellow Division 5 school — a crucial piece of the playoff-selection criteria.

“St. Vincent is a Division 5 school. It’s not the way we created it; it’s there,” co-athletic director Carlos Pena said of the playoff admission criteria. “Twelve teams applied — we’ll take it any way it comes.”

Elsie’s not alone. Willits, the No. 11 Division 5 seed, is 1-8 overall and 1-5 in the North Central League, with a win against the same St. Vincent team that Elsie beat.

But at Monday’s practice, the depth of the Division 5 bracket was not a hot topic. The fact that the Lobos were in the postseason was. There was a celebratory air as the team made its way through drills.

Who can blame them? This team has been aching for something to celebrate for too long.

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“Something in my heart told me that we’re making playoffs,” senior Jonathan Rubio said. “The difference we have made (since) last year and what we did this year, from being blown out last year to actually being in games and being able to compete against teams?”

Rubio used the phrase “making history” a lot. It’s not hyperbole. Just being in the game is something.

This is a program that has suffered through almost annual coaching turnover for years. Most of the seniors shared helmets as freshmen. The Lobos don’t have a freshman team, they don’t have a JV team. If you play football at Elsie Allen, you play varsity. And you likely start.

So yeah, making playoffs feels pretty darned good right about now.

“A lot of people just started playing freshman year,” said senior Eric Vargas. “We work a lot harder; other teams are just more gifted.”

And a playoff berth seems something like a reward — for persevering if nothing else.

“I think we deserve it,” he said. “We’ve been working hard since freshman year.”

Hester struggled a little with how to handle the team’s berth. Does he pitch it as no big deal, just another chance to play the game? Or does he tell the boys it’s a just reward for years of struggle — something that represents a larger life lesson?

“I ask myself that same question — if I was going to present it to them like that or is that being too heavy handed?” he said. “I have definitely had that thought — that they stuck with it, they did pretty much what I asked, trying to turn it into a real program overnight, with double days and everything that I think you are supposed to do.”

But my guess is that Hester is thrilled just to have that internal debate. He doesn’t want to blow it up too big, but it’s clear that sometimes a football game is more than just a game.

“Now they have this accomplishment that they can always look back on,” he said.

The Lobos will travel to McKinleyville High on Friday to take on No. 5 seed Arcata. The Tigers are 7-4 and 3-2 in the Humboldt-Del Norte League.

The Lobos seem confident that Arcata isn’t of the ilk the Lobos face game in and game out in the SCL. It’s a winnable contest, they said.

Either way, it’s a good week to be a Lobo football player. The team is being embraced on campus, senior Byron Vega said.

“Everybody is just excited for us,” he said. “It’s a new beginning toward football.”

Vargas agreed.

He said this game, this one contest, could have a lasting impact on Elsie Allen’s program. Kids who were on the fence about playing?

Maybe they’ll come out. Kids who are hit-or-miss showing up for workouts in spring season? Maybe they’ll become mainstays. Skip a weight room session? Not on a playoff team, you won’t.

“I do think of the bigger picture,” Vargas said. “I’m also excited for the freshmen and sophomores on the team because they know what it takes to win games. A game, I mean.”

Vargas laughs. He’s a realist. But this playoff berth has let him be a dreamer, too.

“It’s basically a whole new season,” he said. “Who knows what can happen?”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.