James Burns: For Le Grand football, title not enough

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor Merced Sun-Star

LE GRAND -- For exactly one year, their focus had been pointed, fixated on what has proven elusive to many: a Sac-Joaquin Section football championship.

Their grail.

That desire, that emptiness, manifested itself in nearly every Le Grand play and sound bite this fall, each picking up in intensity as the pages on the calendar flipped.

"It became our mission," Le Grand coach Rick Martinez said.

Tight end/defensive end Alex Martinez yearned for another opportunity, his insides twisting into knots at the thought of "that one time."

Linebacker/running back Bob Perez trained all summer, cutting weight and building muscle, turning his body into a weapon because of "that one time."

That one time?

You know, 2009, when the Bulldogs got so close to the ceremonial blue banner they could count the number of stitches.

So there was no mistaking the emotion Saturday evening when, with a flurry of touchdowns, Le Grand finally crashed the champions club, holding that grail in hands bruised and frozen over.

It took four trips to the threshold and that heart-wrenching loss in 2009 to Capital Christian, but the Bulldogs had finally arrived at its ultimate goal.

Or had they?

Because over the course of the next two weeks, there's going to be a serious debate centering on the CIF's Small-School state bowl bids, and Le Grand figures to be part of the discussion.

Forcefully, if it has to.

More on that in a sec.

First, let's meet the players from the north.

Two teams have separated themselves in CalHiSports' Small-School rankings: No. 1 Middletown of the North Coast Section, 11-1 and still alive in its playoff; and No. 2 Brookside Christian, the Sac-Joaquin Section D6 champion.

Those same rankings have Le Grand ranked sixth, stuck in traffic and without much hope of jumping the line.

All of which doesn't bode well for the section's southernmost school. The rankings have essentially become the script for the CIF's seeding committee, which will convene on Dec. 12. CalHiSports editor Mark Tennis will arrive at the meeting, pitch his final rankings and then provide any necessary commentary.

Le Grand appears to be the ultimate loser in this ranking system.

The Bulldogs should have moved up, passing No. 4 Central Catholic (which actually climbed in the rankings, despite having its season stopped in the D4 quarterfinals weeks ago) and No. 5 Bradshaw Christian.

Theoretically, there's still time. Middleton and No. 4 Ferndale still have to become bowl eligible, and losses this week in the North Coast semifinals could catapult Le Grand up the rankings.

All of that climbing would be for naught, though, if Le Grand can't hurdle Brookside Christian. And it can't.

Brookside Christian has two factors working like one-ton turbines in its favor: 1) They're undefeated, a perfect 12-0; and 2) They've now beaten Bradshaw Christian, the only common opponent it shares with Le Grand.

"It's a long shot, I know," said Rick Martinez, whose team was waxed by Bradshaw back in September, 35-6. At home, no less.

Still, that won't stop Le Grand from trying. They've got their grail, a soft-to-the-touch blue banner, but they've also got their pride.

Half the town watched at least some of Saturday's D6 final. They saw Bradshaw's seven turnovers. They saw two teams whose level of play appeared inferior to theirs.

They weren't entertained by the bobbles and "doinks!" -- not like they were when Le Grand stormed the same field hours later.

"I saw the fourth quarter," Martinez said, "and I'm thinking, man, we'd beat both of those teams."

So the chase is on.

Le Grand has a new goal: The CIF's small-school state bowl game at The Home Depot Center in Carson.

Rick has already penned a letter to Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner Pete Saco, spelling out the many reasons why Le Grand -- not Brookside -- should be the section's candidate for a Small-School bowl bid.

His hope is that Saco -- perhaps Le Grand's biggest fan on Saturday -- will take his letter and tales of his small-school championship games to the other commissioners, asking them to look beyond the standards already set in place and Tennis' recommendation.

It's a cute gesture, this pick-me, pick-me playground tactic. But it won't work. Logistically, Le Grand's plan is flawed.

While Saco might be enthralled with the Bulldogs and their traveling fan base, if the debate comes down to Brookside and Le Grand, he and the committee will base their decision on one game. Bradshaw 35, LG 6.

Brookside would get the state bowl bid.

And Le Grand, another grail to chase.