Typically, Sacramento State football players are nowhere near a field this time of year. But this is no ordinary season. The team set a school record for wins, won its first Big Sky Conference championship since it joined in 1996 and is playing in its first playoff game since 1988.
So, there were still players on the Hornet Stadium field during a visit this week as coaching staff prepared them for its FCS playoff game Saturday night against Austin Peay State University.
That includes Troy Taylor: He's the first-year head coach and is a lot quieter than some of those on his staff. When he speaks, though, the message is clear: focus on the details, not on the end result.
"We've tried to have that mentality the entire year. It starts with the coaches and, hopefully, it trickles down to the players," Taylor said on Tuesday.
The coach, who returned to the Sacramento region after stints at Eastern Washington University and the University of Utah, says he didn't really consider how the season might turn out when he was hired.
"I just didn't spend a ton of time thinking about what we were capable or not capable of. Honestly. Fall camp, I thought we had a chance to be pretty good," he said.
Big Sky is in the second tier of NCAA divisions, and FCS schools often get hammered by the bigger programs.
Sac State lost to larger programs such as Arizona State University, but only by 12, and to Fresno State by 14, both respectable margins. Six years ago, the Hornets were clobbered by ASU, 55 to zero. In 2016, Sac State lost to Fresno State 31-3.
"After the ASU and Fresno State game, I discovered we have a gritty team,” Taylor said. “We got a chance.”
On the heels of those losses, the Hornets won seven of their next eight games. Taylor says it's been a great start.
"The long-term vision when I took the job was to just be the pride of Sacramento, whether or not you went to Sacramento State,” he said. “If you lived in Sacramento, that you had a team that you could follow and you were proud of and you could root for. So, I've had a lot of people say they've become Hornet fans. They love watching us."
In 65 years of playing football, Sac State has had one head coach with a winning record. Taylor is now the second. He was just voted Big Sky coach of the year and is a finalist for the national award, as well.
Honors have been bestowed on his players, too. Fifteen were named to the all conference team and quarterback Kevin Thomson has been named Big Sky’s top offensive player.
"We've worked really hard as a unit and kind of built something special. Hopefully that continues to trend upwards for the program for the future. Hopefully this season is just a stepping stone," Thomson said.
Thomson is listed as a junior, but has already graduated and is working on a masters degree. Should he play professionally, he would join eight other Sac State quarterbacks to go to the pros.
It would be at least nine if you count Taylor who saw limited time with the Jets in 1990-91 after starring at Cordova High School and UC Berkeley. And 10, if you count Ken O’brien, who played one season at Sac State before transferring to UC Davis.
Taylor has brought many of his old Folsom High School coaches on board, including former co-head coach Kris Richardson — who was at the school for four state titles — and three assistants: Bobby Fresques, Sam Cole and Chris Parry. There are also five Bulldog players on the roster, including receiver Parker Clayton.
"It's cool. It's definitely cool. Yeah. I know everyone in Folsom's excited. They're showing tons of support for all our guys here," Clayton said.
Taylor is averaging nearly 15 yards per catch. He says the coaches have been doing their best to do what they've done all year: not look too far ahead and treat this game like any other. Clayton says he’s doing his best.
"I try not to get too caught up in it. It's the whole one-game-at-a-time thing. We're all super, super grateful to be here and we're just excited for the opportunities that we get," Clayton said.
Excited, grateful — and loose. As practice ended, a cheer arose at the announcement breakfast burritos would be served the following morning.
One day at a time, one burrito at a time, these Hornets hope to be right back here next week, getting ready for round two of the playoffs.
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