Alpaugh Revives Its Football Program

(Webmaster Note: The Tehachapi Warriors defeated Alpaugh 37-0 in Alpaugh in 1950, the last time the Buffaloes had a football team. This article makes you appreciate how much it takes to develop and sustain a football program.)

Posted by Nick Giannandrea, The Fresno Bee, on September 29, 2006

Far left, the Alpaugh High football team opened home play for the first time in 56 years a few weeks ago against Bethel Christian of Sanger. Center, an estimated 200 fans watched the game between the Buffalos and Bethel Christian, the first organized football game in Alpaugh in 56 years. Far right, the Alpaugh High football team starts from deep in its own end of the field on a less-than-desirable surface during a game with Bethel Christian of Sanger. The field, which was not used at all before the birth of the new football program, is poorly turfed due to several inches of added dirt in the off season with not enough time for the grass to grow.

ALPAUGH — They sat around one of the small shade trees that line the western fence at Alpaugh High, enjoying hamburgers and memories — both freshly made.

The Alpaugh football players were decked out in new blue-and-yellow uniforms, and they had plenty to talk about.

Anthony Alvarado had scored five touchdowns. Billy Bontrager provided flawless protection for quarterback Josh Bañuelos. Ricardo Aguilera's interception at the goal line helped preserve a shutout. Jairo Lopez was a ball of energy, making plays all over the field.

Together — 21 players strong — the Buffalos had just played the first high school football game in Alpaugh since 1950, a 48-0 defeat of Sanger's Bethel Christian on Saturday in an eight-man game.

"We've never really had anything like this happen in Alpaugh," Bañuelos said. "Right now, we're grateful we have a football team and the opportunity to play in front of all these people."

Approximately 200 people showed up to witness the biggest thing to happen in Alpaugh (population 761) since, well, longer than anyone there could remember.

Saturday's game drew farmers and farmworkers.

Family and friends.

Students and teachers.

But mostly it drew people curious to see what the electronic message board in front of the school had trumpeted for days: "Home Football Game vs. Bethel … Saturday, 11 a.m. … Bring your lawn chairs."

And the people came. Some sitting on the two small aluminum bleachers brought over from the baseball field. Some sitting on lawn chairs. Others standing along the dirt track that surrounds the football field.

"This is the only thing that's happened in a number of years that's drawn this kind of support," Alpaugh resident James Hose said. "The kids have gained the respect of the community. They have worked hard."

Many of the players who gathered under the shade tree — eating those hamburgers — helped make this day happen. They refused to give up on their dream of playing high school football.

And the man who flipped those burgers, second-year Alpaugh Superintendent Robert Hudson, was the person who finally heeded their call.

"We love him," Bañuelos said.

Jairo Lopez was a Pop Warner football player in Coalinga.

Then, in the middle of his eighth-grade year, Lopez's family moved 60 miles east to Alpaugh.

To a 318-student, kindergarten-through-12th-grade school without a football team. There are only 82 students in grades 9-12.

"I was tripping out," said Lopez, now a sophomore. "I didn't know this school was so small."

It wasn't long before Lopez wanted to bail out — to a school that offered football. Before this season, Alpaugh High, established in 1910, was the only school in the California Interscholastic Federation's Central Section that did not have a football team.

Lopez and Bañuelos went to Hudson shortly after he arrived on campus last fall, and asked the new superintendent if Alpaugh could have a football team. Hudson — an avid Fresno State football fan — said he would look into it.

"I thought he was joking, just trying to keep me here," said Lopez, who was planning to transfer to Corcoran, located more than 20 miles away, to play football. He was going to encourage a couple of his friends to go along.

"When I found out it was true, I was fired up."

Not only did Hudson look into it, he persuaded the Alpaugh Unified School District board of trustees to spend $32,000 of reserve money on an eight-man football team — by unanimous vote of the five members.

The school bought new jerseys, helmets and pads for the players and goal posts for a patchy-grass field that required 60 truckloads of dirt to build a crown for drainage.

"It's been mentioned on several different occasions, but no one had the intestinal fortitude to push it through," said Alpaugh board member Robert Bontrager, Billy Bontrager's father. "Mostly, it never got beyond the talking stages before. But [Hudson] mentioned he loved football and would like to see it brought to Alpaugh. We all thought it would be a great idea, and he took the ball and ran with it."

The decision came just in time for the four seniors on the roster: Billy Bontrager, Heraclio Alfaro, Noe Gaona and Ben Medina.

"It's been good," said Bontrager, a tackle. "I just wish they would have started it earlier so I could have played longer."

Alfaro had planned to play high school football until his family moved from Phoenix when he was in junior high.

"This means everything to me because this is my favorite sport," said Alfaro, a center, nose guard and kicker — and one of the Buffalos' three two-way starters. "When I saw the guys in pads, I was like, 'Wow. We have a football team.'"

Saying "Alpaugh" and "football" in the same sentence takes some getting used to around this rural, agricultural-based community in southwestern Tulare County.

"I can't believe Alpaugh actually has a football team," one student said to a couple of friends while watching the players run length-of-the-field sprints during practice.

That's because Alpaugh doesn't have much. The town was known more for its unsafe water supply that contained arsenic and other contaminants than its athletic achievements. A new water-delivery system was completed earlier this year.

There are no youth sports programs in the town, which was founded in 1905 by John Alpaugh. No recreation department. No arcades. And certainly no River Park-like shopping centers and social hangout spots like in Fresno. The closest shopping and entertainment options are 20 miles away in Delano and 35 miles away in Tulare.

"We have so few things for the youth," said lifelong Alpaugh resident and 1966 Alpaugh High graduate Joann Martin. "It's definitely something our town needs."

Teenage boys in Alpaugh mostly spend their free time hanging out with friends or playing pickup games — football, basketball, soccer or baseball — on campus, which is in the middle of town on Center Avenue.

"When we turn the lights on, they stay as long as I will stay," Alpaugh baseball coach Danny McVay said. "These kids are 100% dedicated. I tell them, 'Let [sports] be your ticket out.'"

If Bañuelos wasn't playing football, he says he would be "kicking it at home with my friends, watching music videos. Being bums."

People around town see it in the same light.

"I'm glad it's there for the boys," said 17-year Alpaugh resident Debra Wood. "It gives them something to do so they are not in trouble. And it gives the town something to do. We can come out and watch them."

The year was 1950.

Back when helmets didn't feature face masks.

There were 19 players under the direction of coach Paul Platz.

Football was being played for the first time in Alpaugh.

"It was really something new," said Jack Mitchell, who was a seventh-grader during the 1950-51 school year. "But there just was not enough kids for that big a team."

The inexperienced Buffalos were not very good. They were outscored 273-0 in six games, according to Central Section historian Bob Barnett.

Mitchell said that after a few players went down with injuries, the football team couldn't continue the season.

And it never came back.

"You get two or three hurt in football, and it would wipe out the basketball season," Mitchell said. "Our main thing back then was basketball and baseball."

Fast-forward 56 years.

The current crop of Buffalos have been fast studies, which is surprising. Only two of Alpaugh's 21 players had played an organized football game in pads. And many players weren't able to attend training sessions run during the summer by coach Darren Hill because they had to work in the fields surrounding town.

"I've always watched it, but never had a chance for me to play," said Bañuelos, the quarterback.

Alpaugh — which plays in the new Small Schools Football League featuring fellow new programs Bethel Christian, Lighthouse Christian of Bakersfield and Riverdale Christian — has outscored its first two opponents 84-14.

The Buffalos beat the Maricopa junior varsity 36-14 in their first game. The game against Bethel Christian was called with 4:26 left because of the mercy rule, which ends eight-man games once a team has a 45-point lead.

"It's been more skill-building and teaching them the basics," said Hill, whose only assistant is Billy Alvarado, father of star running back Anthony Alvarado. Hill, who commutes from Visalia, is also a physical education and health teacher at the school.

"Some of them had never even played football in their lives. But they are hard working and are eager. I am pleased."

The basics included helping the players put on pads for the first time, which brought out a wide range of emotions.

"We were a little nervous," Bañuelos said. "We had never practiced with them on. But we were happy we made it this far, that we had a team together."

Said defensive end Medina: "I felt invincible, like a big shot in the NFL."

Hudson, the superintendent who brought football back to Alpaugh, was up early Saturday morning. He left his Hanford home and arrived in Alpaugh at 8 a.m. to personally level the gopher holes sprinkled all over the football field.

By 11 a.m., Hudson was flipping hamburgers and hot dogs to sell at the makeshift concession stand set up behind the home sideline.

This team is Hudson's baby, and he's quite the proud papa.

"Seeing those kids out there in their pads, it's been worth every dime," he said.

Football is part of Hudson's plan to change the learning environment in Alpaugh, a town where the median income is $23,688 and most of the homes are prefabricated. Hudson sees football as a perk designed to make students excited about coming to school and learning.

"It's in the best interest of kids, that's what this is about," Hudson said. "Alpaugh has been an underachieving school. But we just went up 100 API points. We have high expectations and strict expectations. Having a football team fit into the whole program of improvements at school."

The players are buying into Hudson's plan. They know maintaining good grades keeps them on the field, and ensures this team doesn't meet the same fate as its 1950 counterpart.

"You have to have good grades," linebacker Aguilera said. "And football helps you keep up with your grades."

They are developing school pride, too.

"It's an honor," Medina said. "This is the first football team in 56 years. I'm proud that we're representing our school."

That's exactly what Hudson had in mind.

"The school is all pumped up," he said. "I've got girls asking to be cheerleaders. And younger kids are now talking about football and getting ready to play football. I am really floored."

Hudson said he hopes to add lights to the football field in the next couple of years so the Buffalos can switch their games from Saturday mornings to Friday nights, the traditional time for high school football. He also wants to replace the bleachers borrowed from the baseball field with a permanent berm for stadium seating.

But Hudson's biggest dream won't require fundraising, land-leveling or construction.

It will come when Alpaugh produces its first college football recruit.

And not to just any school.

"I can hardly wait until we send our first player to Fresno State," Hudson said. "There will come a time when one of our kids helps the Green V [Fresno State]."

That player isn't likely to come off this team.

Not that it matters to a group of students who finally have the opportunity to do something most of their peers across the country have long been able to do — play high school football.

"This was my last year," Alfaro said. "I really appreciate this because I thought I was never going to play."

Alpaugh Unified School District Superintendent Robert Hudson puts burgers and linguicas on the barbecue. Hudson went to the school board to ask for the football program, and he got his request. Photos by Craig Kohlruss, The Fresno Bee.