It’s a 6-year-old school with a student body (850) matched by Central High’s senior class alone.
But that doesn’t matter to the Grizzlies and coach Justin Garza about Valor Christian of Highlands Ranch, Colo.
This does: The Eagles, with remarkable swiftness, have become the finest football program in the state.
“They are a machine,” Garza says of a program expected to win a fifth straight state title. The recruiting power of a private school with $15,000 annual tuition, combined with one located in an affluent suburb south of Denver has made it possible.
Stanford-bound running back Christian McCaffrey, son of former Denver Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey, goes there.
Receiver/defensive back Brian Dawkins Jr., son of the former nine-time Pro Bowl safety, goes there.
Both of their families live in the area. Valor Christian, 51-5 in the past four seasons, has five major college recruits in all. So does Central. And that explains why ESPN2 will televise their 7 p.m. game Saturday at Highlands Ranch.
It’s one of 13 games in nine states that ESPN is televising this weekend on its family of networks for its High School Football Kickoff.
The cable giant is financing all team expenses for Central, says Rich Clayton, the district’s athletic director. That includes airfare, two nights of lodging and meals for 51 players and nine coaches. The Central community, meanwhile, fundraised $25,000 to send 55 cheerleaders.
“We plan to go in loose, have fun and enjoy the experience,” says Grizzlies running back Nick Wilson, who has committed to Arizona.
The experience, however, does not come without sacrifice.
In order to find a flight that allowed the team and coaches to travel together, they departed from Sacramento at 7:30 a.m. Friday. And that meant first busing from campus at 2 a.m.
“There are several concerns that we’ve addressed,” says Garza, counting among them the itinerary. “But we’re not using anything for excuses.
“For us, it’s a business trip. We’re not going to squeeze stuff in like sightseeing or anything like that. We’ll rest up and put on a good show for our Valley. This game has been on our minds for so long, but we’re surprisingly calm. We’re ready to go.”
The game will be played at a 5,500-seat campus stadium with artificial surface — similar in both respects to the Grizzlies Koligian Stadium.
In addition, it will be played at 5,680-foot elevation, meaning thin air at more than a mile above sea level could pose a severe test of stamina for Central, which isn’t used to it. This will be tantamount to playing a game at Shaver Lake.
But Garza, citing TV timeouts in addition to standard team timeouts, says he expects a “slow-paced” game, allowing the Grizzlies more opportunities than normal to catch their breath. They’ll need it to chase McCaffrey.
A 6-foot, 195-pounder with 10.5-second speed over 100 meters, he was named Colorado’s Gatorade State Player of the Year in football after averaging 8.9 yards a carry and totaling 2,491 all-purpose yards for a 12-2 team.
Also offered scholarships by Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska, among others, he was also the starting point guard for a basketball team that finished second in the state, and ran on two state-championship relays in track and field.
“He’s a bit of a throwback,” Valor Christian coach Rod Sherman says. “And obviously he comes from great lineage. All of the guys look at him as a tremendous leader. He goes hard every snap in practice and really raises our caliber of practice play because he goes so hard.”
Other Eagles in college demand are receiver/safety Marcus Wilson, cornerback Eric Lee and offensive tackles Isaiah Holland (6-5, 310) and Alec Ruth (6-6, 305).
Central, likewise, is fleet afoot and imposing on the interior lines.
“We have some really strong programs in Colorado,” Sherman says, “but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a school with the level and number of athletes Coach Garza has at Central. I don’t really see any weakness.”
Defensive back Devon Brewer and two-way lineman Sharif Williams (6-3, 295) plan on linking arms with Wilson at Arizona.
Defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood (6-1, 293) has committed to USC. And receiver/returner/defensive back Michiah Quick has narrowed his top choices to two-year reigning national champion Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon and USC.
Key for Central, top-ranked by The Bee in the Central Section, is the development of senior quarterback Eric Jimenez, who started half the season for an 11-3 team that finished runner-up to Clovis North in D-I.
“He’s light years beyond last year,” Grizzlies offensive coordinator Mark Hetherington says. “He’s always been tough and extremely accurate, but the experience is great and he’s more vocal. He’s smooth and he doesn’t feel the pressure.”
The bright lights of ESPN, however, will elevate that pressure to another level.
“It will be fun,” Jimenez says. “We’re ready to prove we can play with the best.”
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: CENTRAL AT VALOR CHRISTIAN
Today: 7 p.m. in Highlands Ranch, Colo.
Rankings: Central No. 1 in Central Section by The Bee; Valor Christian No. 1 in Colorado by MaxPreps
2012 records: Central, 11-3, second in section Division I; Valor Christian 12-2, first in Colorado's largest division, 5-A
The stage: Each team has minimum of five major college recruits. Atop marquee are Central's Michiah Quick, among nation's top-ranked receivers/returners, and Valor Christian's Stanford-bound Christian McCaffrey. ... Game is one of 13 on ESPN's family of networks as part of this weekend's High School Kickoff.
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @beepreps on Twitter.