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August 28, 2014
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Prep football: Miners, Hillmen renew rivalry after nearly two decades

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Nevada Union and Placer football teams butted heads on the gridiron, but that drought comes to a close Friday.

The Miners will head to Auburn to face the Hillmen in a Week Zero matchup, renewing a once fierce rivalry that began more than 60 years ago.

“I’m very anxious, the kids are very anxious,” said NU head coach Dennis Houlihan. “We have a lot to prove to our fans. We really want to get out there and get our first win.”

Winning was something that eluded the Miners last season, but the 2014 squad returns several seniors focused on redemption.

“It’s really important,” NU senior running back Travis Owens said of winning. “Especially coming off a 0-10 season. It’s definitely important to show the alumni that we can bring back the old Nevada Union football.”

According to former NU head football coach Dave Humphers, the last time Placer and NU played was 1995, a game the Miners won 25-23. That Placer team had a junior on it by the name of Joey Montoya, said Humphers.

Montoya would eventually become an assistant coach under Humphers, and in 2007 he took over the Placer varsity team. At the helm of the Hillmen, Montoya has a 58-27 record, with only one losing season (2007), six trips to the playoffs and two Pioneer Valley League titles.

“(Montoya) has done a fantastic job with the Hillmen,” Humphers said. “He’s a great mentor for those kids and a great leader for that program.”

Montoya and the Hillmen, like Nevada Union, run the wing-T offense.

“Our versions (of the wing-T) are a little different,” said Houlihan. “But, I don’t think we will see anything we haven’t before. It will be like playing ourselves in the mirror. It will come down to who stops who and who makes plays.”

Houlihan said he has developed a good relationship with Montoya over the years.

“I usually don’t like playing my friends, but I’ll deal with it,” Houlihan said.

While the Miners enter the game with a load of seniors who saw lots of playing time as juniors last season, Placer is on the other end of the spectrum, after graduating most of their skill players.

NU returns Owens (925 all-purpose yards, four touchdowns) and Mo Nieves (433 rush yards, five touchdowns) in the backfield, as well as its quarterback and much of its offensive line.

“I think it will come down to our line,” said Houlihan. “What happens in the trenches will decide the game.”

Houlihan also expressed more confidence in the team’s passing game, stating that junior quarterback Justus Spillner has made great strides in his game since last season.

While Placer graduated their quarterback (Logan Strange) and top two rushers (Todd Valliere, Cameron Scott) from a season ago, they do return a veteran line.

Defensively the Miners have senior leadership at all three levels with Enzo Arata and Colton Barker on the line, Joseph Ten-Eyck and Josh Belendez as linebackers and Owens in the secondary.

For Placer their defense was strong last season, notching 22 sacks and forcing 24 turnovers.

The Hillmen do return their leading tackler from a season ago in Cole Blackwell (99 tackles) and talented pass rusher Michael Downen, who had 66 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2013.

The Nevada Union/Placer rivalry dates back to 1952, and the two squads have faced off 40 times since. The Miners hold a slight edge in the series having gone 20-19-1 against the Hillmen.

The renewed rivalry kicks off at 7:15 p.m. Friday at Placer’s LeFebvre Stadium.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email

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The Union Updated Aug 29, 2014 12:11AM Published Aug 29, 2014 04:57PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.