HILMAR -- When the Hilmar High Yellowjackets trot onto the field on Friday nights, they are flanked by local fire engines with lights spinning. The public-address system blares "My Town," Montgomery Gentry's 2002 ode to down-home values.
Guests immediately get the message: You're in Hilmar, and we like the way we live.
"This is my last head-coaching job," said Frank Marques, Hilmar Class of 1981. "I don't want to go anywhere else."
Hilmar returns this fall to the Trans-Valley League, its traditional base, and it's still a perfect fit. Everything the Yellowjackets have done in football -- accented by five Sac-Joaquin Section titles, the most recent in 2008 -- is embossed by the town's unofficial slogan.
Made in Hilmar. And proud of it.
Marques, beginning his eighth season as the boss of the Yellowjackets, surrounds himself with homegrown talent. Ten members of his 12-man football staff either played alongside Marques or played for him later.
"You're all on the same page. You don't have to retrain the personnel," he said. "Everyone has the same mindset."
The numbers don't lie. Hilmar has won 82 percent of its games and has reached three section finals since Marques took charge.
But Marques also has written his own signature on the program. Like many schools, he's orchestrated a shift this decade to the wide-open spread offense, a major change from the power-I deployed by Hilmar for more than 25 years.
The linchpin of that switch was quarterback Nate Costa (2003-05), now bidding for the quarterback job as a senior for the Oregon Ducks. The first three years of Marques' regime were guided by a virtual Cadillac calling the signals.
"He wasn't the most athletic player we ever had, but he was the most complete," Marques said. "When he had passes dropped, he never complained. He did all the work. He helped us this summer at our youth camp."
Before Costa and friends, the Yellowjackets pounded teams with offensive linemen opening holes for yard-eating tailbacks: David Cunha, Johnny Azevedo, Don Carey, Larry Teixeira, Ave de Silva, Rusty Stivers, Danny Rocha, Eric Habit, Scott Goodwin and others.
They were coached by Jerry Van Lengen (1977-91), the godfather of Hilmar football. His teams claimed four straight section titles in the late 1980s and won 46 straight games, tied for the longest streak by any public school in California.
Van Lengen, 64, coached the Placer Hillmen of Auburn from 1991 to '95 and, since then, is happy teaching health classes and coaching the JVs at Del Oro. But he hasn't forgotten Hilmar. He still reviews the old games on DVDs.
"The kids we coached at Hilmar were tough and wouldn't quit," he said. "I haven't seen that work ethic since."
It's still there, demonstrated in 2008 by Hilmar's upset win over Central Catholic for the section title. Not only had the Yellowjackets lost earlier that season to the Raiders, but no public school had beaten CC since 2001.
"No superstars on that team," Marques said. "Just guys working their butts off."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.