When Cal Poly defensive end Brandon Roberts was the class president at Atascadero High five years ago, he had the opportunity to play football for Ivy League programs Yale and Columbia, for rival UC Davis and even got a recruited walk-on offer from Washington.
Roberts, named Academic All-District for the second straight season for the Mustangs (5-4) this week, chose to stay in the county where he’d played football since he was 8 years old.
It hasn’t exactly hit the 6-foot-1, 250-pound fifth-year senior that tonight’s regular-season home finale against visiting Eastern Washington (4-5) will be the last one played in Alex G. Spanos Stadium by either he or roommate Jake Romanelli, a former Templeton High standout.
But he’s appreciated the decision to play close to home.
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“Being close, I can still talk to my old coaches,” said Roberts, who’s earned a 3.81 grade-point average in forestry and natural resources. “Friends, parents from back in high school come to the games. For me and Jake, between the two of us, the support system has been great between the two communities. It’s an awesome experience. This was the best choice.”
A full-time starter this season for the first time in his college career, Roberts has 16 tackles, including four for lost yardage and one sack, and has four pass breakups and three quarterback hurries.
The offensive counterpart in the duo of hometown heroes, Romanelli has had a standout year, leading Cal Poly with 87.4 rushing yards per game and scoring eight total touchdowns.
The storylines don’t end there.
It will also be the last home game for cornerback Asa Jackson and slotback Mark Rodgers, who’ve both had injuries affect senior seasons with high expectations.
Awards candidate Jackson has been playing on a broken foot for three weeks. Rodgers, a former West Virginia transfer who missed the past two games with a shoulder injury, practiced this week for the first time since getting hurt at North Dakota and will attempt to play, too.
It’s also the end of a Shotwell era as defensive end and long snapper Troy Shotwell plays his last home game in the stadium where brother Kyle was a national FCS defensive player of the year and brother Ryan became one of the program’s top sack artists.
It will have been nearly a decade since the last time there wasn’t one of the siblings from Dos Pueblos High on the roster.
Like the family of many of the other 26 seniors, senior guard Maurice McClure’s mom, Dori, is making the trip to San Luis Obispo for one last football game.
“I’m excited,” McClure said. “I just want to play hard and go out with a bang, show these younger guys that whether if it’s your last game or your first game, just play hard.”
Playing at home “is special,” he added, “because everybody that knows you, from your professors to your friends, they’re out here to see you play and do your thing.”
They’re all feel-good stories of players who have been valuable assets to the Mustangs program the past few seasons but aren’t necessarily the angles Cal Poly would have hoped to be the focus at this stage of the season.
When the matchup between the Mustangs and the defending FCS national champion Eagles was announced prior to the season, it was projected as a late-season nonconference battle that could have major playoff implications.
As it is, Eastern Washington saw a 30-27 loss and near upset of the Pac-12’s Washington snowball into a 0-4 start and had its last-gasp shot at making the postseason dashed in a 43-26 loss to Portland State after four straight wins had gotten the Eagles back in it.
How different might the season have gone if Eastern Washington quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell had thrown the go-ahead touchdown instead of an interception in the end zone in the final 30 seconds against the Huskies?
How about if Cal Poly had held on to a second-half lead at Montana?
Both teams can also shake their fists at a series of impactful injuries that have limited their practice and playing options.
“If they’re healthy, it might be the beat team in the country,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said about what he called the best road team to play at Spanos this year. “They’re good, and a lot of the guys they have playing for them, a lot of them have played in the national championship game.”
Cal Poly did not lose its first four games, but the Mustangs have almost been in desperation mode since a 37-23 loss to the Grizzlies in the second game of the season.
Needing a serious run of victories to qualify for an at-large berth in the final year of a football conference that does not award an automatic berth to its champion, Cal Poly went on to win five out of six and four straight.
The Mustangs, who can still win the Great West Conference title outright before all five of the football-playing teams leave the conference for another home next season, saw their postseason hopes take a critical blow in a disappointing 24-17 loss at UC Davis last week.
The state of both teams’ seasons has lessened the intrigue of tonight’s matchup, but to players and coaches, the quality of football won’t be affected.
“It’s going to be a clash of two really great teams in our division,” Roberts said.
“To go out with a win would be amazing for all of us, for the whole team to show that we can bounce back after these tough losses and battle back no matter what we’re playing for.”