It’s the main topic of conversation in all the barber shops, nail salons, pizza parlors and while waiting for chili dog orders at Chuck Wagon.
The people here are talking about their beloved Sanger High School Apaches, who on Friday night could become the first undefeated Valley champions in the program’s 117-year history.
They’re also talking about beloved coach Chuck Shidan, poised to step down after 27 seasons and (hopefully) a fourth Central Section title. Although no one in this football-crazy burg of 25,000 is certain what Shidan’s decision will be – not even the man himself.
“It’s been a great season, but also kind of bittersweet,” says Nick Tijerina, owner of the Sanger Barber Shop and father of Jacob Tijerina, the Apaches’ starting quarterback. “Everyone’s sad this is probably his last year.”
For the record, Shidan has not made any definitive public pronouncements about hanging up his whistle. Nor has he informed his loyal assistant coaches, many of whom played for him or have been with him for decades.
But Sanger is a small town, and people talk.
That includes the official Sanger Apaches Twitter account, which tweeted, “This is it for Coach Shidan. Come on out and witness history!” after last week’s semifinal blowout over Sunnyside.
“I don’t run that – I don’t have anything to do with that,” Shidan says with a laugh. “Those are just people talking. But after you get to a certain point, and I’ve been doing this 27 years, you start to evaluate whether you want to keep coaching.”
Shidan says once the season ends, before Christmas break, he’ll sit down with Sanger principal Dan Chacon and reach a verdict. Of course, if the top-seeded Apaches (12-0) win the Division II championship against No. 6 Ridgeview-Bakersfield (7-5), the season extends into the state playoffs.
And, of course, Chacon will try to convince Shidan to stick around.
“Let’s just finish out this season and see where we go,” Chacon says. “I have an inkling of maybe two more (years).”
Not even Shidan’s right-hand man, Jorge Pena, the former Apaches quarterback who has served as offensive coordinator since 2000, knows what will happen.
“We’ve talked about it a little, but nothing has been set in stone,” Pena says. “There’s no exit plan. But if it was ever going to happen, this feels like it could be the time.”
We’ll make a decision after. I really want to make sure this season is about this team.
Sanger High coach Chuck Shidan, on his coaching future
Defensive-line coach Nikko Motta, a former Fresno State and Apaches standout, is already bracing for news he doesn’t want to hear.
“To be honest with you, I’ll be devastated,” Motta says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But if it does, I want him to go out on top.”
Even longtime rivals, and good friends, like Bullard High coach Donnie Arax don’t want to see Shidan exit.
“I love competing against those guys, and my hope is that he continues a couple more years,” Arax says. “But if this is it, that’s something to stand back and really appreciate.
“This is a guy who gave 27 years to a school and 27 years to a school that he graduated from. You just don’t see that very often. And you’re going to see it less and less.”
Chuck has the ability to be likeable, but he’s also a strong personality and a strong person. That’s something that’s rare among football coaches.
Bullard High coach Donnie Arax
Shidan is eager to table any retirement talk, or sidestep the subject completely, for one simple reason: He doesn’t want the attention on him.
The youthful-looking 59-year-old wants the attention focused on his team, the one that bulldozed its way through the Country-Metro Athletic Conference and has outscored opponents by a combined 522-163.
Since becoming head coach in 1990, Shidan has won three section titles (1998, 2001, 2003). Each of those teams had at least two losses. Even the legendary 1976 Apaches squad featuring fullback Ted Torosian lost its opener before reeling off 12 straight victories.
The last Sanger team to go undefeated, according to program historian Ron Blackwood, was the 1959 edition that finished 8-0. But that team didn’t win the Valley (the playoffs were suspended from 1957 to 1966).
The last Sanger team to go undefeated was the 1959 edition that finished 8-0. But that team didn’t win the Valley.
“I want to make it clear this is not about my final dance or my final march or any of that stuff,” Shidan says. “These kids are such a great group. The main thing is it’s about them.
“They’re really close, these kids, so I don’t want to put any undue pressure on them, and I don’t want to put any undue pressure on myself.”
Sanger High football, during the Chuck Shidan era, embodies toughness and devotion. Other teams may have more size and talent, but none play with more heart.
Hence the term “Sanger bangers.”
This year’s squad is a little different in that it features a few 250-plus-pounders on the line of scrimmage. Its 3-4 defense boasts four senior linebackers (Miguel Garcia, Josh Garza, Adrian Valencia and Josiah Arreola) who have played together since elementary school. It has dynamic athletes in Aaron Mosby, a two-way starter at receiver and cornerback, and sophomore Jalen Cropper, who lines up all over the field (including behind center) and is already getting attention from Pacific-12 Conference schools.
“There’s more toys,” says Pena, whose offense blends the wing-T with the triple-option flexbone a la Navy. “We have talent, but the work ethic hasn’t dropped a bit. If anything, it’s stronger than ever.”
Our kids are as tough as they come. You can hit them and hit them and hit them, and whatever they got they’ll get back up and give it.
Sanger defensive-line coach Nikko Motta
Stronger than ever could also describe the excitement level for Friday night’s section championship at Tom Flores Stadium, where a standing-room-only crowd of 7,000 is expected.
Tickets went on sale at 10:30 a.m. Monday. In 24 hours, more than 1,000 had been purchased.
In other words, Ridgeview fans better get there early. Or else they could be left with no place to sit.
“I’ve got my ticket,” says Sanger native Greg Gonzalez, whom I met standing in line at Chuck Wagon. “This town, this community, is just close-knit. Even though they’re not your kids, everybody supports them like they are.”
“The whole town is talking about Friday night,” says Nash Lucero, co-owner of All-Star Barber Shop, while giving a trim. “This is something we’ve been waiting for forever.”
Even though the farmland that separates Sanger from the sprawl of Fresno seems to shrink every year, the town retains its own identity. And nothing is more identifiable around here than red and white football jerseys or the red baseball caps embroidered with the blue “S.”
Even though the farmland that separates Sanger from the sprawl of Fresno seems to shrink every year, the town retains its own identity.
Sanger football isn’t just a tradition. It’s woven into the fabric of the community, embedded in the lives of the people who live here.
“I think we’re really lucky that we’re still a little separate,” Shidan says. “We have grown tremendously in the last few years, but we’re still a one high school town and we’re still Sanger.”
Says Arax, “Those kids are playing for their town, and they’re playing for their brothers and uncles and cousins who played their as well.”
202-109 Chuck Shidan’s record in 27 seasons as Sanger High football coach
If Shidan steps down, it’ll be primarily to devote more time to his wife of 27 years, Patricia, and their 13-year-old son Sam, who’s in the seventh grade. But if Shidan needs incentive to stick around, all he needs to do is look at the undefeated junior varsity team – or the undefeated middle school teams.
Sanger will keep churning out football players, keep packing Tom Flores Stadium, keep being the main source of community pride. Even if the man primarily responsible, who’s on a first-name basis with seemingly everyone in town, is no longer getting fired up on the sideline.
“You can say it’s in the dirt or it’s in the water, but a lot of it is Coach Shidan,” Motta says. “It’s a great time for Sanger football, but at the same time it’s also kind of sad.”
Central Section championships
All games Friday at 7 p.m.
DIVISION I: No. 2 Bakersfield (10-2) at No. 1 Central (11-1)
D-II: No. 6 Ridgeview (7-5) at No. 1 Sanger (12-0)
D-III: No. 2 Tulare Western (9-3) at No. 1 Bakersfield Christian (11-1)
D-IV: No. 3 Chowchilla (10-1) at No. 1 Selma (12-0)
D-V: No. 3 Firebaugh (11-2) at No. 1 Mendota (12-0)
D-VI: No. 2 Sierra Pacific (8-4) at No. 1 Strathmore (12-0)