Twenty years later, the message remains the same for the Arroyo Grande High football team: Believe in what you do.
In 1990, the Eagles beat Junipero Serra High in Gardena, 31-0, in the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division VII playoffs, shattering what had been a 24-game winning streak by the defending champion Cavaliers.
“The biggest thing was we believed in ourselves, believed in what we could do,” said Matt Soenksen, an offensive lineman for the Eagles at the time. “We knew we were a good team.
“I believed in our chances,” Soenksen said. “I know the coaches did as well. Belief in your team is half the battle.”
In an ironic twist of fate, at 7 p.m. tonight, this year’s Eagles will also play at Serra, this time for the Western Division championship, against a similarly favored Cavaliers team riding a 28-game winning streak.
“When I heard about (this year’s matchup), I was thinking, ‘Wow, déjà vu,’ ” said Joe Wells, another lineman on the 1990 team, of learning his alma mater would again be up against a stacked Serra team with an impressive streak.
The Cavaliers’ 1990 winning streak was the third-longest active one in the state at the time; this year’s 28-gamer is already the longest in the state.
“There was a lot of build-up,” Wells recalled of the 1990 game. “Practice was really intense that week.”
Arroyo Grande faced adversity early 20 years ago, as star running back Clemente Sainten had to be carried off the field on the Eagles’ third play from scrimmage because of a knee injury.
Sainten, who was named the San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year that season as a junior, went on to sign with Oregon State before later transferring to Weber State. Sainten had gained at least 100 yards in each of the previous eight games to that point.
But backup running backs Eric Lopez and Josh Whitaker filled in admirably, rushing for a combined 138 yards.
The Eagles pulled away after leading 7-0 at the half and held Serra to 107 yards for the game.
“We played almost a perfect game,” Soenksen said.
The 1990 team had something of a benefit that this year’s team won’t have coming in — experience gained against Serra in the previous year’s playoffs. In 1989, the Cavaliers had eliminated Arroyo Grande.
“It was a big surprise to everybody,” Soenksen said of the way the 1990 win was perceived.
Arroyo Grande fell in the championship game that year, 12-7, to Northern League rival Lompoc. At the time, the Braves were enjoying a record-setting career put forth by future Oakland Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman.
This year’s Eagles have won four in a row, including last week’s 52-19 win over Chaminade Prep of West Hills, which many in the region had predicted to make it to the championship game for a rematch with its Mission League rival in Serra.
“I’ve seen A.G. play this year,” said Soenksen, who played at UCLA and recently was a track and field coach at Nipomo High. “They’re peaking at the right time. They really took it to Chaminade last week, and Chaminade is a good team.
“Win or lose,” Soenksen said, “they’re the pride of the town right now, the pride of the county.”
What else would he tell this year’s group?
“Live in the moment,” Soenksen said. “Enjoy it. Take it all in. I very vividly remember thinking at practices, ‘No matter what, wow, win or lose — this is it. This is the last game of the season.’ You take everything you have and put it all on the field.”
Even if that was then, and this is now, Wells, a wrestling coach in Wisconsin, also had some present-day, straightforward words of advice for this year’s underdog.
“Play your game,” Wells said. “You know what to do. Execute and good things will happen.”