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If anyone out there knows me from my days of working for Student Sports Magazine and ESPN, you know I’ve done columns and features about the most unique or best places to watch football games several times over the years.
But this list does change. It does because some high school stadiums have to be repaired or demolished and rebuilt entirely due to earthquake protection. New schools and new stadiums also are opening every year.
My favorite place I’ve ever been to see a high school football game in Northern California, in fact, is one of those stadiums that had to be taken down. That would be the one and only Napa Memorial Stadium. Before it had to be demolished, the height of its grandstands, the Quonset huts at one end zone each painted in the school colors of Napa High and Vintage High and the fact that there was no track separating the stands from the sidelines made it incredibly intense.
I had the pleasure of covering several of the Napa vs. Vintage Big Games in the 1980s and 1990s at Napa Memorial Stadium and went there several times for CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoff games. Sure, for the teams themselves, Napa Memorial Stadium was a pain because the dressing rooms were a couple blocks away at Napa High. But that only added to the experience for the fans.
Napa Memorial Stadium is still a good place to see a game, but the rebuilt version lost its charm from the old place. Imagine someone in Boston rebuilding Fenway Park or someone in Chicago doing the same to Wrigley Field. It’s hard to see how that charm could be recaptured.
Here then is my current top five list of the best places to watch a football game in Northern California (note: not counting the CIF Central Section for this because a couple of Clovis Unified stadiums would definitely be on the list):
1. Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Lincoln of Stockton
Call me biased because my son, Sean, graduated from Lincoln on the field in June of 2014, but I always thought Lincoln’s home stadium was among the best in California even before I started living in Stockton in 1993. It offers the prerequisite for me of not having a running track separating the fans from the players and the stadium was improved several years ago by the addition of a college-like foyer entrance. Sycamore trees still stand tall on one end of the field while the other side is enclosed by more stands. The press box also is one of the best anywhere with more than one level. The reason Lincoln’s stadium is so nice is because it is located about two blocks from the longtime residence of San Diego Chargers’ owner Alex Spanos. Many Spanos grandchildren played inside the stadium. He and the Spanos family obviously made such a venue possible and deserve a lot of credit for their contributions not just to Stockton but to the entire state.
2. Prairie City Stadium, Folsom
With its signature blue turf and with teams in recent years that have been among the best in the state, Folsom officials have recreated a Texas-style atmosphere for its home games. The PA announcer even has a Texas twang when he says, “Touchdown, Bull-Daawgs.” The Bulldog band also is one of the best around. It’s a bigger stadium than my No. 1 place at Lincoln of Stockton but it isn’t as intimate.
3. Dunlavy Stadium, Sonora
This venue was built in 1937 when 5,500 seats were planted on the side of a hill. Dunlavy often is mentioned as one of the most unique places to see a game but it’s also one of the best. A fan can easily visit a restaurant or watering hole in nearby downtown Sonora before or after a game. Last season, Sonora had to wait to have its first home game until October due to a renovation project at the stadium and track. Despite the delay and moving from the Valley Oak League to the Mother Lode League, the Wildcats still have Dunlavy Stadium as their home and nothing will ever change that.
4. George Washington High Stadium, San Francisco
For stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and an enclosed sensation that is a must for any great place to watch a game, this place might be No. 1. So many games in the city, however, aren’t played on Friday night and aren’t heavily attended. I wish they were but they aren’t which makes watching games at other places more enjoyable. Still, as MaxPreps recently wrote, Washington’s stadium is one of the 10 high school football stadiums in the nation to see before you die. I agree. Galileo’s George White Field doesn’t have a view of the Golden Gate Bridge but it’s more historical (it was named O.J. Simpson Field at one time) and if you can watch a game from one of the higher floors of the high-rise apartments across the street you’ll get a view of the action that you’ve never seen before.
5. Ron Calcagno Stadium, St. Francis (Mountain View)
What sets this place apart from just about anywhere else is a magnificent Bay Tree that dwarfs the goal post at one end of the field not to mention the school’s gymnasium. The Bay Tree also is even considered a symbol of the school. Some teams playing at St. Francis on a Friday night, especially Serra of San Mateo in recent years, might actually also think that the tree casts some sort of spell preventing them from beating the host Lancers. Make you buy a program at a St. Francis game, too. With all the historical info, it’s usually the best one we get for all of Northern California.