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At the height of the King Fire that raged in the El Dorado National Forest for more nearly two weeks in September and gobbled up more than 92,000 acres, the family of El Dorado High junior nose guard Zach Brazell was told there was an 85 percent chance their home was going to be destroyed.
Neither Brazell, nor any other member of El Dorado’s football team lost their home, but after the flames died down and after the first four games it can be calculated that there is a 100 percent chance that the Placerville school is going to have a successful season.
Success for a team like the Cougars can be measured in many ways. Their 4-0 record after those first four games and the fact they no longer have to face much bigger schools such as Cosumnes Oaks of Elk Grove or Vista del Lago of Folsom in league games greatly improves the odds of getting a high seed in the upcoming CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
But if success is measured by the bonds that have formed among the players at El Dorado – and just about every big-time football coach from De La Salle of Concord to anywhere else will tell you that’s what’s most important – then the fire has only served to make those bonds even stronger than they already were.
“Almost every single player on the team came up to me and offered help,” said Brazell, who lives on a two-acre property in the Swansboro community that was among the hardest hit by the King Fire. “We were told on a Monday we had to leave so I grabbed my football stuff and just lived at a friend’s house for a few days.”
According to El Dorado head coach Joe Volek, two other players from the team – junior defensive lineman Tanner Lilland and senior free safety Devin Hern – evacuated their homes after the fire got going on Sunday, Sept. 14.
Final costs for the fire are still being determined, but after 12 days it had burned 12 homes, threatened nearly 12,000 people and was called the second largest fire in California this year.
The entire Placerville community didn’t have much smoke to deal with since the wind blew it more toward Lake Tahoe instead of back down the hill. Still, there was one day in which events in the school district had to be canceled and the general uncertainty of how bad things could get hung in the air almost as thick as any ash particles.
“It was real stressful for those kids who had to leave because they didn’t know what might happen, their parents were sleeping on couches and it was hard for them to get their gear,” Volek said. “In the daytime, the Delta breeze moved the fire toward Tahoe and away from us but everything changed at night. One of the fire chiefs told me it was the weirdest fire they’ve ever had to deal with.”
Brazell’s family benefitted from the weird weather whims manipulating the fire.
“Our house was saved because the weather just changed right out of nowhere,” Brazell said. “We had to bulldoze a ditch around the house but in the end the closest the fire got was about a mile away.”
While the fire was still going but beginning to get under control, El Dorado played a road game on Friday, Sept. 19 at San Juan of Fair Oaks and defeated Mesa Verde of Citrus Heights 42-0. If that had been a home game, Volek said, it’s likely it would have been canceled or postponed.
In its previous game, before the fire began, the Cougars erupted for a 72-28 win over Rio Americano of Sacramento.
“This was a tight group and a special senior class that we haven’t seen around here before this particular situation arose,” said Volek, who is in his third year as the team’s head coach. “It’s not like it brought them together but coming together in the face of it has definitely helped the psyche of the whole program.”
Senior quarterback Nick Bonniksen is the focal point of the offense. Against Rio Americano, he passed for 348 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 62 yards and one other score. He only had 129 yards passing against Mesa Verde but rushed for 88.
“This group has been together and we’ve been friends for a long time,” Bonniksen said. “We’ve always been there for each other. The fire just made us more unified and a lot stronger.”
Bonniksen also had to worry himself about family during the week-long siege of flames. His grandparents live in nearby Pollock Pines (where the fire began allegedly on purpose by a suspect in custody) and were on voluntary evacuation orders.
“They decided not to leave, but one night the fire went a different way and it got closer,” Bonniksen said. “That was scary because it’s your grandparents.”
In addition to Bonniksen’s abilities at quarterback, another strength of the team in the early going was its balance. Running backs Tyler Clanin and Carter Meyers both already had 100-yard games by the fourth week and Clanin could reach 1,000 yards by the end of the regular season.
The El Dorado defense gave up four scores against both South Tahoe of South Lake Tahoe and Rio Americano, but pitched the shutout against Mesa Verde. Senior linebacker Brandon Ollar (averaging eight tackles per game) and senior defensive back Zach Culp (four interceptions) have been the individual standouts.
Volek’s son, Chris, is a quarterback on El Dorado’s JV team and hopes to follow in the family tradition. The coach himself was a quarterback at Walla Walla High in Washington and jokes that he has something in common with NFL legend Tom Brady.
“Drew Bledsoe (future NFL starter) was a sophomore behind me when I was a senior,” the coach recalled. “He became the starter when I left so Tom Brady and I both were in front of Drew for awhile.”
Volek’s brother, Billy, also is younger than him and became a standout at Clovis West of Fresno after the family moved from Walla Walla to California due to father John taking over as head coach at Fresno City College. Billy later played at Fresno State and enjoyed an eight-year NFL career himself mostly with the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans.
“My dad (a former head coach at Sacramento State) is doing great and is spending a lot of time these days watching his grandkids’ play football,” Volek said. “My brother also had eight great years in the NFL.”
For the remainder of this season, El Dorado must think about Cordova of Rancho Cordova (also started 4-0) and Gold Nugget Game rival Union Mine of El Dorado as perhaps the biggest obstacles toward winning a Sierra Valley Conference title.
“Last year, we were looking to upset teams in some of these league games,” said Bonniksen, referring to Cosumnes Oaks and Vista del Lago. “This year, people want to upset us.”
And while the King Fire may have strengthened an already tight bond, Bonniksen demonstrated it also may have ignited a burst of confidence.
“Yes, we want to play one game at a time, but we’re really looking to go 10-0 (for the regular season) and then make it to the section championship,” he said. “I know that sounds like a lot, but that’s a reasonable goal with this team this year.”
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