Little suspense in MEL football

Welcome to the annual race for second place, otherwise known as football in the Monticello Empire League. Let’s cut to the chase and concede the 2023 championship to Vacaville High without making the Bulldogs play five games.

Vacaville has won six consecutive MEL titles, so the only suspense each season is which team will take second. And even that has not been exciting with Vanden finishing as the runner-up in each of the past five seasons.

Tanner Donaldson contributed to the Bulldogs’ success as a player and now hopes to do as an assistant coach.

Will C. Wood was second in 2017, the first season after Napa and Vintage left the league. Vanden and Fairfield joined the MEL when the Superior California Athletic Conference folded.

Vanden is the only MEL team to come within 20 points of Vacaville in three of the past four years.  The Vikings lost 35-17 to the Bulldogs two years ago, their last loss on their way to the state 3-AA championship.

If Vanden lost twice to Vacaville with Tre Dimes at quarterback, what chance do the Vikings stand  without him? 

Will C. Wood lost 34-31 to Vacaville in 2018, three years after the Wildcats humbled the Bulldogs in a 49-26 victory. The Bulldogs’ last MEL loss was 28-21 to Napa in 2016. Vacaville has won 27 consecutive MEL games since then.

Vacaville’s average margin of victory during that winning streak is 33.6 points. That includes a 40-10 victory against Napa in 2017, a parting gift for the only team that could give Vacaville a run for the money.

The 2023 MEL season kicks off Friday night with Vacaville welcoming Rodriguez to Tom Zunino Stadium, Fairfield traveling to Wood and Vanden visiting Armijo. The closest the Mustangs have come against the Bulldogs was a 49-42 loss in 2008. 

Rodriguez has come within 30 points of Vacaville twice in 14 meetings since then. The Bulldogs’ average margin of victory against the Mustangs is 40 points,  including three games decided by 50 or more .

Armijo is the only unbeaten team at 5-0, but three of the Royals’ victories have come against teams with a combined record of 1-14. Fairfield’s five opponents are a combined 7-16. The Falcons did manage to beat Davis 27-26, but let’s not forget the Blue Devils were routed 43-0 by the Bulldogs in the first week.

Two of Wood’s three victories have come against 0-6 Sacramento and 0-5 Dixon by a total of 14 points. Armijo routed Dixon 42-7 two weeks after the Rams gave the Wildcats all they could handle in a 19-8 loss.

Vacaville can afford to look ahead to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs because no MEL team will pose a threat to the Bulldogs’ reign. The playoffs have not been kind to the Bulldogs, who are 6-9 in the postseason since winning the section Division II title in 2011. They have reached the semifinals once in 10 years since then.

Two section championships in a span of six years (Vacaville won its first in 2006) raised the bar for the Bulldogs. MEL titles are nice, but they lose their luster when they become as certain as death and taxes.

Vanden is the only MEL team to come within 20 points of Vacaville in three of the past four years.  The Vikings lost 35-17 to the Bulldogs two years ago, their last loss on their way to the state 3-AA championship.

Will C. Wood lost 34-31 to Vacaville in 2018, three years after the Wildcats humbled the Bulldogs in a 49-26 victory. The Bulldogs’ last MEL loss was 28-21 to Napa in 2016. Vacaville has won 27 in a row since then.

Thirteen not always bad luck

Mills Sweany and the Bulldogs are 2-0 after a 41-6 victory over Sheldon at Tom Zunino Stadium on Friday. Vacaville will travel to Cardinal Newman in Week 3.

Thirteen gets a bad rap as an unlucky number even though it is not always that foreboding. Many buildings do not have a 13th floor, a dinner party should never have 13 guests and couples never want to exchange vows on the 13th. And then there is Friday the 13th, which appears on the calendar once every 212.35 days.

No Vacaville High School football player wears No. 13, but the number was hardly bad for the Bulldogs in a 41-6 victory over Sheldon on Friday night at Tom Zunino Stadium. Cristian Diosdado had 13 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Massimo Menicou led the defense with 13 tackles, including five for losses.

Quarterback Brody Fortunati struggled with his accuracy against the Huskies, completing just five of 16 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown. The senior was 23-of-28 for 321 yards and four touchdowns a week ago in a 43-0 rout of Davis.

Fortunati had the same problem last year in a 14-7 victory over Cardinal Newman. He was 7-of-16 for 59 yards and one touchdown. The Bulldogs will travel to Santa Rosa to face the Cardinals in Week 3. Cardinal Newman opened its season Friday by defeating Casa Grande 27-13.

Folks at the Vacaville game might have heard cheers from across town as Will C. Wood overcame an 11-point deficit in the final nine minutes to pull out a 35-32 victory over Sacramento. The Dragons will have a score to settle when they join the Monticello Empire League in 2024.

Elijah Laui

Wood trailed 32-21 after Lamar Radcliffe’s 1-yard touchdown run for Sacramento with 9:17 left. Radcliffe had another 1-yard run in the Dragons’ ensuing possession, but he needed 2 on fourth down to sustain the drive and likely put the game away.

Wood took over at Sacramento’s 42-yard line and scored four plays later when Kimani Dokes lofted a 14-yard scoring pass to Lacorey Collins. The two-point conversion attempt failed, so the Wildcats trailed 32-27 with 2:51 to play.

Sacramento tried again to seal the deal on its ensuing possession by calling a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 at Wood’s 39-yard line. Laron James-Radcliff was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, however, giving the Wildcats one last shot.

A 6-yard run by Dokes was followed by an incomplete pass and a holding penalty against the Wildcats, leaving Wood with a third-and-14 play at the 35. Luck was on Wood’s side when Dokes’ pass went through Josiah Chavez’s hands into the arms of Jace Harris Hudson for a first down at the 18.

Elijah Laui completed the comeback by catching a short pass from Dokes and dashing into the end zone. Dokes hit Laui again for the two-point conversion.

Dokes finished 18-of-30 for 242 yards and three touchdowns. The sophomore has thrown for at least 200 yards in each of Wood’s two victories. He will try to make it three in a row on Friday when the Wildcats travel to Stockton to face Chavez.

Fatherhood before football

Holding his daughter in his arms means more to Carson Strong than gripping a football with his right hand. The 2018 Will C. Wood High graduate’s football career will only last so long, even if he makes it to the NFL one day, but he will Zephyr’s father forever.

Zephyr was in her father’s arms April 30 after Strong threw his first USFL touchdown pass for the Michigan Panthers in a 28-13 loss to the New Jersey Generals. His daughter will not remember the special moment, but Strong will never forget it despite the loss.

Carson Strong holds Zephyr on the field in Detroit on April 30.

“It was her first game and my first touchdown,” said Strong, who had Zephyr and his girlfriend Isabella Cibulsky staying with him in Detroit at the time. “It was great to see here and I got her down on the field. There are things more important than football.”

His life will no longer be defined by his success in football. Strong has enjoyed more than his fair share, becoming the first University of Nevada player to be named Offensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference in 2020. The quarterback appreciated the award so much that he won it again in 2021.

Strong’s three seasons of directing the Wolf Pack offense were nothing short of sensational. He passed for 9,368 yards and 74 touchdowns – 4,135 of those yards and 36 of those touchdowns came in 2021. Those numbers prompted the junior to forgo his final year of eligibility at Nevada and declare for the NFL Draft. He had every reason to believe he would be picked with some folks predicting as early as the second round.

Seven rounds came and went without his name being called. That a quarterback was the 262nd and last player selected – Brock Purdy by the 49ers – only added insult to Strong’s injury. And it was likely an injury that convinced NFL teams to pass on Strong.

His right knee is the cause for concern. Strong did not play football or basketball as a senior at Wood after having surgery to repair damaged bone and cartilage in his knee. Nevada honored its commitment to Strong after being the only Division I program to offer him a scholarship, but the large brace he wore on his right knee was not for show.

Strong did not do himself any favors at the 2002 NFL Combine by deciding not to run the 40-yard dash, do any agility drills or lift weights. He feared his knee would not take that much pounding with NFL coaches and general managers evaluating his every move. It did not matter because Strong “got a poor medical grade from most every team.”

The Eagles gambled on Strong by signing him after the draft with a guarantee of $320,000. Strong threw just four passes in four preseason games, however, but at least he could say he earned $80,000 per attempt. The Cardinals signed Strong to their practice squad in December only to send him packing after a week when he failed a physical.

Playing in the XFL would have been an option if not for his guaranteed contract with the Eagles. Strong would have had to repay the Eagles for every dollar he earned in the XFL, so he would have essentially been risking his knee for nothing. The NFL kicked off its new league year on March 15, so Strong no longer has to repay the Eagles.

His USFL contract runs through 2024, but another season of playing behind San Jose State product Josh Love will not do Strong any good. He needs to play in order to prove his knee is safe and sound. Nothing is wrong with his right arm, which he showed off April 27-29 at the 2023 NFL Combine by throwing passes to prospects in assorted drills.

Strong’s volunteer work caught the eye of the Commanders, who invited him for a workout. “They liked me out of college,” Strong said of the Commanders, who sent Strong home before putting him through the paces because their “doctor didn’t pass my knee.”

Cashing his reality check has made it easier for Strong to deal with each dose of disappointment. He has had to accept that he is a second-string quarterback in the USFL with a bum knee. Strong has had to accept that no matter how far he can throw a football, the NFL may never be within his reach. He has had to come to peace with that.

“I’m just playing football at this point. I’m not worried about getting picked up (by an NFL team),” the 23-year-old Strong said candidly. “I’m not guaranteed to pass a physical. They know there’s something going on (in the knee) for sure. I have a few limitations.”

Zephyr spells relief for her father when his knee is throbbing and he is not playing as much as he would like. That was never more evident than when Strong smiled as he held his daughter after the Panthers lost to the Generals on April 30. Strong outplayed Love, who completed 15 of 31 passes for 101 yards. Strong was 4-of-9 for 66 yards, including a 28-yard strike to wide receiver Trey Quinn for the Panthers’ only touchdown.

“It was a pretty special moment for sure,” said Strong, who aspires to be a Division I college coach once his playing days have come to an end. He is already learning how to coach a family with his girlfriend. Zephyr will always be the couple’s No. 1 draft pick.

Wood senior cast as starter

Mason Sayre is not to be touched during football practice at Will C. Wood High School. The senior quarterback wears a red vest over his jersey to remind his teammates that he is off limits. And if the vest is not enough of a deterrent, the black cast on his left forearm will surely do the trick.

All of that does not prevent Sayre from initiating contact. He did just that last Friday on one play during an intrasquad scrimmage. Sayre was flushed from the pocket, scrambled to his right and decided to make a run for it. With a defensive back pinning him to the sideline, Sayre could have easily stayed out of harm’s way by simply stepping out of bounds.

Sayre instead lowered his shoulder and delivered as much of a hit on that defensive back as his 6-foot, 160-pound body could generate. It would be safe to say Sayre will not earn his keep this season by trying to plow for three yards and a cloud of synthetic turf. He will be better off trying to steer clear of defensive players instead of testing his luck against them.

If Sayre gets the itch, however, there is a good chance he will scratch it. “Getting hit is not my favorite thing, but it is fun to hit someone,” he said. “They don’t allow quarterbacks to hit, but let me get in on some of the fun.”

Fun became a habit for Sayre last spring with Wood’s baseball team. The shortstop led the Wildcats in batting average (.392), hits (31) and runs scored (18). Sayre also plays for the Admirals Baseball Club. The cast is a souvenir from an Admirals game during which he tagged a runner at second base and his left thumb became acquainted with the runner’s helmet.

The cast will come off Friday, just in time for Wood’s scrimmage at El Camino on Saturday. The Wildcats will kick off the season Aug. 19 at home against Pioneer of Woodland. Wood has just four home games this season. The other three are Sept. 9 against Liberty of Brentwood, Oct. 7 against Armijo and Oct. 15 against defending state Division 3A champion Vanden.

Baseball may be Sayre’s future, but football is the present. More and more high school athletes are being sold on the idea that putting all their eggs in one sport is the golden ticket to college. Sayre does not buy that. Walking away from football never entered his mind, much less crossed it.

“I love playing football with my friends. That’s what keeps me going,” Sayre said. “It’s fun to represent my school and play under the Friday night lights.”

His first opportunity to take the stage as Wood’s starting quarterback will come Aug. 19 at Wildcat Stadium. He will be just fine without the red vest and black cast.

Former Wildcat keeps his head

Tayvian Cunningham might have lost his helmet Oct. 30, but the Arizona wide receiver did not get lost on his way to the end zone against USC. The Will C. Wood High School graduate had a 73-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter and would have had a 72-yarder in the second quarter if not for his helmet.

Tayvian Cunningham reaches the end zone sans his helmet. (photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics)

USC cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart was on the verge of being torched by Cunningham after Cunningham caught a pass from Jamarye Joiner. Taylor-Stuart reached out in a last-ditch effort to corral Cunningham and hooked his fingers into Cunningham’s facemask. The helmet twisted off like the cap on a bottle of ketchup.

Cunningham did not break stride as his helmet was removed and continued on his way to the end zone. The facemask penalty wiped out his touchdown, however, and left the Wildcats with a first down at USC’s 22-yard line. Cunningham had to settle for a 35-yard catch. Arizona scored three plays later on Michael Wiley’s 1-yard run to cut USC’s lead to 28-14.

“(Taylor-Stuart) actually took it off pretty smoothly, just like I would take it off,” said Cunningham, who did not realize the play ended as soon as his helmet was removed. Twisting off Cunningham’s helmet would have not been so easy for Taylor-Stuart had Cunningham’s hair been styled in a high top fade as it was during his days at Will C. Wood. The senior now prefers long braids.

USC was Cunningham’s favorite team when he was a youngster learning to put his speed to good use on a football field. He now likes the Trojans for a far different reason. He has had his top two performances with the Wildcats against USC.

Cunningham caught five passes for 110 yards with a 75-yard touchdown in Arizona’s 34-30 loss to USC on Nov. 14, 2020. His 73-yard touchdown on Oct. 30 made Cunningham one of just three Arizona players to have two touchdown receptions of 70 or more yards in their careers. The other two were Junor Criner (2008-11) and Cayleb Jones (2014-15). And Cunningham could have three.

Arizona only plays USC once a season, however. There have been several games since Cunningham joined the Wildcats in 2019 that he has played with nothing to show for his efforts. He did not have a reception Saturday as Arizona snapped a 20-game losing streak with a 10-3 victory over Cal in Tucson. That was the third game this season in which he was shut out. Cunningham caught 14 passes in the first four games and just four in the past five games.

Regardless of how many passes he catches, Cunningham has made his mark at Arizona by proving a 5-foot-10, 183-pound junior college transfer from Sacramento City can hold his own against Division I players in the Pac-12 Conference. He never had the luxury of taking football for granted. He earned his way.

“I’m just embracing the whole ending of my college career,” he said. “I always believed I would be able to get here at some point. I’m just glad I was able to do it.”

What the future holds for Cunningham has yet to be determined. All he knows is nothing will ever stand in his way. “Every experience has taught me something new,” he said. “You have to give it all you got whatever the task is at hand.”

His time has arrived at Nevada

Carson Strong cried after every Will C. Wood High School football game in 2017. His tears were born of frustration more than sorrow. After the five victories, Strong did not feel as if he deserved to celebrate with his teammates. After the five losses, he could only wonder if he could have changed the outcome in any of those games.

A knee injury and the subsequent surgery reduced Strong to a sideline spectator as a senior. The quarterback was denied an encore after passing for 2,732 yards and 26 touchdowns with just four interceptions in 2016. His only comfort was those numbers leading the University of Nevada to offer him a scholarship.

Carson Strong

Strong was also robbed of a last hurrah in basketball at Wood because his right knee refused to cooperate. To this day, Strong likes to think he could have stopped Vacaville’s Zach Perlstein from sinking two last-second shots to give the Bulldogs a sweep of the Wildcats. No one needs to remind Strong that Vacaville ended Wood’s two-year reign as the Monticello Empire League champion by going 10-0 in 2018.

“It was a dark time for me. It was definitely tough,” Strong said. “I didn’t feel like I was a part of it.”

At least Strong was spared the agony of witnessing those two defeats. He was attending classes at Nevada  after leaving Wood, his family and friends at the winter break to get a head start on his college career. There is little chance he would be where he is today if he had stayed at Wood for all the senior frolic.

Behind center is where Strong will be Friday night when he becomes the first freshman to start at quarterback for Nevada in a season opener since 1998. Strong is a redshirt freshman after playing in one game last year. Purdue will be a far tougher test for Strong on Friday than Portland State was last season.

Sacrificing the second half of his senior year now seems as if it was not a sacrifice at all. And with three semesters and two summer sessions under his academic belt, he plans to earn his business degree with two years of athletic eligibility remaining. That will give him ample time on scholarship for a master’s.

From the day he left Wood, Strong realized his world would be much more demanding. He had to get serious. “I was going to 5 a.m. workouts instead of having a cakewalk senior year,” he said. “I missed all the fun stuff (at Wood), but I know what’s best for me. It was the right decision to come here early.”

Practices and scrimmages have prepared Strong for his leading role, but he knows better than to kid himself. He has not thrown a pass or taken a hit in a game since a 38-15 loss to Vacaville in the 2016 Black and Blue Bowl. He has not taken a snap in a game with his right knee in the brace he now has to wear.

None of that can shake Strong’s confidence, however. All those long days of rehabilitating his knee and dragging tackling dummies to the practice field in the chill of a Reno night to use them as targets to improve his accuracy are in the past. The future is knocking and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strong is at the door.

“When I get hit for the first time and get up, it’ll be like ‘I’m good. I’m rocking.’ That will knock the butterflies away,” he said. “I couldn’t be better physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m right where I want to be. I’m ready for this.”