The Cal Poly football team has been prepared for the altitude at Northern Arizona since a mid-September trip to Wyoming.
Mustangs cornerback Nico Molino has been preparing to face Lumberjacks quarterback Cary Grossart since the sixth grade.
That’s when the two Northern California products first got to know each other. They played on the same youth teams and remained good friends throughout junior high and high school, even though Molino went to Granite Bay High and Grossart went to nearby Folsom.
Before transferring to Cal Poly, Molino even walked on at Northern Arizona partly because Grossart had received a scholarship to play for the Lumberjacks.
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The buddies continue to chat over the phone almost weekly, mostly talking football and about their on-field exploits — all the while knowing they could end their collegiate careers like the fox and the hound.
“We’ve always had that in the back of our mind that our last game is against each other,” Molino said. “So, we can’t tell each other too much, but we always have our friendly talks and talk about our individual games but not really our secrets and gameplans.”
They could have hardly predicted today’s season finale between No. 15 Northern Arizona (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky Conference) and No. 17 Cal Poly (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky Conference) would have more at stake.
The Molino-Grossart winner will not only have the greatest bragging rights a childhood buddy could ever have over another, the victor’s team is also guaranteed at least a share of the Big Sky championship and an almost certain berth to the 20-team FCS playoff bracket.
The loser will be on shaky ground heading into Sunday’s FCS playoff selection show, likely hoping the power ranking of the Big Sky — arguably the top FCS conference in the nation — is enough to secure four or more playoff spots.
For fourth-year Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh, it would be his first playoff berth since taking over at Cal Poly, which last made the postseason in under Rich Ellerson in 2008.
Like Molino, Cal Poly running back Deonte Williams also transferred away from Northern Arizona.
Tacking on stops at Sierra College and a brief stint at San Diego State, Williams had a more winding road to Cal Poly after being the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year in 2009, but he also counts some friends among the Lumberjacks.
Only for Williams, revisiting his old stomping grounds won’t carry any extra emotion.
“Honestly, no,” Williams said. “All I think about is playing for the championship, so that’s all I care about. It can be against whoever. As long as we’re playing for a championship to get this ninth win, that’s all I’m excited for.”
The Mustangs should not be too worried about the 6,980-foot elevation of the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Even though it is the second-highest stadium in the nation, Cal Poly went into the highest, the thin air of Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium at 7,215 feet, and beat the Cowboys 24-22 on Sept. 15.
The bigger concern is how the Mustangs have been playing away from home recently.
In its past two road games, Cal Poly has gone down in frustrating defeat at both Sacramento State and Eastern Washington.
The two losses were departures from road victories at Wyoming, North Dakota and Weber State, where the Mustangs traded leads with each team and pulled away with clutch plays in the second halves.
Against the Hornets and Eagles, Cal Poly lost the composure needed to make those fourth-quarter comebacks.
“If you really look back at those two games,” Walsh said, “how we dealt with the frustrations was probably why we didn’t win. Things are going to go bad in a football game, especially when you’re playing an opponent as good as Northern Arizona or Eastern Washington. You have to be able to deal with the goods and the bads.
“We have to go back to those earlier games and look at how relaxed we were in our preparation. Even if something goes bad, we’re going to get it fixed and make sure it goes right.
“I didn’t want our players to come out here frothing at the mouth and foaming, ‘Let’s go.’ I wanted them to come out here and be professional about what they need to do and make sure that they’re prepared so that we can play our best game.”