Magical moments |

Magical moments

“The plan, if carried out, means that Nevada County will possess the strongest athletic lineup in high school history. Both schools possess some unusually promising talent for honors on the cinder path, the gridiron and in mixed events.

“Together they could make any similar institution of learning in the State look to its laurels.”

– The Union, October 1904, from a story discussing the potential consolidation of Grass Valley and Nevada City high schools.

Nearly five decades after talk of merging the high schools of western Nevada County’s twin cities first arose, Grass Valley and Nevada City indeed consolidated in 1952.

And the result, particularly on the football field, made the author of the above look a lot like Nostradamus.

Certainly, like any athletic program, the Nevada Union Miners have had their ups and downs in the course of their 52-year history. But through those years, the Miners marched a path to prominence as one of the greater Sacramento area’s most storied prep programs.

Growing pains

The early results were mixed, as longtime Grass Valley coach Art Hooper took on the task of melding two school communities into one – and the fact that he was dealing with bitter rivals didn’t make the job an easy one.

“I have heard tales that non-athletes from Grass Valley and Nevada City would duke it out after the games (before the merge),” said Wayne Brooks, a Class of 1955 member and former Miner.

Hooper, though, managed to pull the former foes together into a team that proved to be competitive, if not prolific in the win column. NU went 3-5 in its inaugural season, including a 20-13 win over Oroville in the first game in school history. But aside from a 33-0 thrashing by Galt in week two, the remaining four losses NU suffered were by a combined 25 points – or less than a touchdown per defeat.

“I’m surprised they didn’t do better than they did that first year,” said former Nevada City Yellowjacket Martin “Keith” Marsh, the author of “The Yellowjackets.”

“I was also surprised though how well the boys merged and how the Nevada City guys got the opportunity to play, even though Hooper had been Grass Valley’s coach. It seemed to be very fairly done.”

Year two saw the first winning season at NU, as the Miners went 5-4 under Hooper, including two wins over rival Placer High.

“He was the master sergeant. Line them up and knock them down,” Brooks said of Hooper. “We ran the single wing in those days and it was rock ’em, sock ’em football.”

Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Nevada Union’s season records hovered around the .500 mark, one exception being a 5-2 mark in 1956 under longtime junior varsity coach Homer “Buzz” Ostrom, who coached the NU varsity that one season.

Jim Guinn produced five winning seasons in his 11-year stint at the helm of the Miners, including the two best seasons in school history at the time. Guinn guided NU to a 7-2 mark in 1965 and then a 7-1-1 record in ’69.

The next two seasons, though, Guinn’s gridders went a combined 3-13-2, which his successor and former assistant coach said, fair or not, proved to be fodder for his critics.

“The Union got on him real hard,” said Gary Musick, who was head coach from 1972-75. “Then the school board got involved and decided to eliminate Jim as head coach.

“It ended up being an extremely hard decision for me (to accept the job). I wanted to do it and it was a compliment to be offered the job. Someone said if you don’t take it, you may not get another shot at being a head coach.”

So he took it.

Musick led NU to at total of 10 wins in his first three years and then nearly stepped away before returning for his best -and final – season, which produced a 5-3-1 record and a five-game win streak, on the sidelines as head coach.

“I gave myself three years to win a championship or get out. I didn’t want to have happen to me what happened to Jim,” he said. “We worked hard and had some success, but never did win the championship.

“I had decided to hang it up, but the kids wouldn’t let me. They sat me down and said ‘You want us to make a commitment and you’re not making a commitment to us.’ So I stayed another year.

“I’m proud of it. I’m proud to have been a part of that program.”

Here come the Miners

Musick stepped away from the sideline, but he hardly turned his back on NU football. In his 16 years within the physical education department, including many as department chairman, he helped usher in a new era.

It was in that role that he helped bring about advanced phys. ed classes at NU, in which athletes are able to dedicate themselves to weight training and physical conditioning.

“I really believe that’s where I made my mark in football,” Musick said. “I think the attitude around school was changed.”

And, Musick said, his own successor had as much to do with that change of attitude as anyone else. Marshall Nixon, along with the help of longtime NU assistant coaches Don Flath, Bruce Kinseth and Gary Sharpe, dug into the program by working with future Miners well before they stepped onto the Hooper Stadium turf.

“Randy Blankenship and Dave Humphers (who followed Nixon as head coaches), I have nothing but respect for either of those guys. They are outstanding coaches,” Musick said. “But those guys – Marshall, Don Flath, Bruce Kinseth and, of course, Gary Sharpe – they’re the heroes, because they were teachers of football and brought championship kids to the varsity level and handed them over to Blankenship and Humphers.

“I think that is really the reason why Nevada Union became winners. They prepared the football program for winning before Randy and Dave got there.”

The 5-5 record Nixon led Nevada Union to in 1976 might not look like much on paper, but the fact that one of those losses came in NU’s first-ever playoff game – a 41-28 defeat to St. Mary’s – signaled a new direction in the program.

Nixon’s encore a year later gave NU fans a 9-1 record, including an unblemished 7-0 mark in the Sierra Foothill League capped by a thrilling 31-28 win over rival Placer for the SFL crown.

“It was tremendous,” said Nixon, “especially our rivalry with Placer. In those games, we would pack both end zones and it would be standing room only.

“The fans have always been great to the school, the players and every one involved. There’s a lot of support at that school. I know a lot of businesses on Friday nights would close. It’s what you’d see in the Midwest or small towns in Texas. It was that good. The community was tremendous.”

Nixon’s third year, a 4-5 overall record and a 4-3 SFL mark, proved to be just a hiccup in his remaining years at the helm. He led NU to back-to-back 8-1 records in 1980-81. A year later, NU went 6-4 and then 5-5 in 1983, which proved to be his last season leading the Miners.

Perhaps he was a victim of his own success, spoiling the Nevada Union community to the point that a .500 season or being competitive was no longer good enough.

After all, he was fired.

“I didn’t go to the games anymore. I didn’t see the need to and I didn’t really want to interfere with (new coach) Randy Blankenship’s program,” Nixon said. “I just didn’t want to attract attention to myself.

“It was pretty tough for about a year and into the second year, but after that it got easier.”

Despite the firing, Nixon harbors no ill feelings for Nevada Union.

“I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world,” he said. “Looking back, it’s a real demanding job. Blankenship came along and he was young and more enthusiastic. I was getting old and it was probably time to move on, for both me and the program.”

Striking gold

What’s the best way to win over fans as a first-year coach? How about running off eight straight wins to open the season?

That’s what Randy Blankenship’s boys did in 1984. Apparently, NU’s new offense, the wing-T, baffled opponents from the beginning. The Miners didn’t suffer their first setback under Blankenship until week nine, one week after tying Del Campo 14-14.

“It actually was the expectation,” said Blankenship, now the athletic director and head football coach at Madera High School near San Diego. “You’ve got to understand that Nevada Union won before we got there. They just hadn’t won a championship. Nevada Union was no doormat. I know that.”

The Miners went 4-1-1 in league play, claiming the school’s first Capital Athletic League championship – and in the process washed a sour taste from their mouths in avenging a 36-0 loss to Grant in the 1983 season finale with a 42-12 pasting of the Pacers.

Blankenship, who brought along Humphers as defensive coordinator when he landed on campus, took the Miners to places they had never been by the end of his tenure.

In 1985, the Miners produced 10 wins, the most in school history at the time. Four years later, NU upped the ante with a 13-1 season. The lone loss, though certainly disappointing, marked new ground being broken by the Miners, as NU fell to Merced 31-29 in the Sac-Joaquin Section championship game.

A year later, NU posted its third-straight unbeaten season in CAL contests, meaning the Miners were 18-0 in league play during that span. But the end of the season was the same story as in ’89, a loss to Merced in the section title game.

Still, Blankenship had helped begin a new era, one that began a 45-game home win streak in 197, which didn’t come to an end until 1994. It was during that run, Blankenship said, that an NU teacher coined the phrase “Miner Magic,” describing how NU seemed to have a knack for coming up with the big play when it was needed most to keep the streak alive.

“Chris Owens who was woodshop teacher started that,” Blankenship said. “There were a couple of times we should have lost at home, but we’d either block a field goal or it would barely miss wide right or we’d come up with a miracle play. And Chris started that phrase ‘Miner Magic.'”

Now more than decade after he coached his final game at NU, Blankenship recalls his seven-year stint with great fondness. In fact, he admittedly was “choked up” for a moment talking about his run in Grass Valley.

“It was a love affair there,” he said. “I remember teaching P.E. classes on Friday afternoons and seeing fans leaving blankets in the stadium to save their seats for that night’s game. The kids see that kind of support and they just want to jump into it.

“My wife and I were up there last year and spent the night in a bed and breakfast. It truly was a love affair there,” he added before a long pause. “I miss them.”

Era of excellence

Humphers posted an 8-3 mark in his debut season after succeeding Blankenship and then followed with a 12-1 campaign in 1992. But a bitter defeat to rival Grant, by a 35-6 count, in the City Championship game had the Miners looking forward to 1993 as soon as they stepped off the turf after the loss.

“There’s no question that was a motivator,” Humphers said. “That loss was something that drove those kids to the point that they were on a mission to get to the top.”

Those emotions apparently were put into positive perspective, as NU answered by rolling off a 13-1 season that not only returned the Miners to the section title game – against two-time nemesis and then 13-0 Merced – but also got over the hump with a 34-13 win, claiming the first football section crown in school history.

“There is a lot of hard work, fun and challenges on the road to a section championship, Humphers said. “But there’s nothing quite like winning the whole thing. I was just really happy for those young men.”

Miner fans didn’t have to wait long to travel that road again.

A year later, NU did what Merced had done against the Miners in 1989-90. Nevada Union won back-to-back section championships with another 13-1 campaign. NU dominated a 13-0 Napa club 28-0, after the Miner defense allowed just seven first downs.

“I’ll never forget those moments. I’ll never forget the great run by A.J. Kunkle in the (’93) section championship. It was about an 18-yard run that ended up at the one. He broke about 10 tackles. He broke a couple of guys’ tackles twice. Isaac Ostrom ran into the end zone on the next play and that really set the tone for the kind of game we were going to play.

“And in ’94, you know, we tell our kids all season long ‘Let’s play our best game of the year in the section final. And that year we did. The ’94 team struggled to improve all year long, but they really came together as a team in the playoffs.”

It also just so happened to be the same year a documentary filmmaker chronicled the rivalry between inner-city Grant High and rural Nevada Union. The film was shown twice nationwide on PBS – and another few thousand times at the Humphers household.

“We beat Grant in the playoffs that year,” Humphers said, “so I watch the video every chance I get.”

As impressive as that run may appear, Humphers and company have been every bit as impressive between 1999-2003, in which the Miners went undefeated in the regular season in four of the past five years.

Now entering in his 14th season as NU’s head coach, Humphers has a 124-28-2 record, which calculates to a .805 winning percentage, the best in school history ahead of Blankenship’s 62-19-2 mark (.759).

He says he always had hoped to have a long tenure as a high school coach and he enjoys the approach of every autumn with unrelenting enthusiasm.

“One of my friends in high school wrote in my yearbook ‘Good luck as high school teacher and as a football coach in the foothills,” Humphers said. “I was a 16-year-old junior at the time.

“So I’d say, yeah, this is what I wanted. I feel like I have the best job in the country. This is home.”

Nevada Union coaching records

Coach Yrs. W L T Pct. (Games)

Dave Humphers (1991-present) 13 124 28 2 .805 (154)

Randy Blankenship (1984-90) 7 62 19 2 .759 (83)

Marshall Nixon (1976-83) 8 52 24 0 .684 (76)

Gary Musick (1972-75) 4 15 20 1 .431 (36)

Jim Guinn (1961-71) 11 42 51 7 .455 (100)

Ursal Snapp (1960) 1 2 5 1 .313 (8)

John Valentino (1957-59) 3 13 12 0 .520 (25)

Homer Ostrom (1956) 1 5 2 0 .714 (7)

Art Hooper (1952-55) 4 13 20 0 .394 (33)

Totals 52 328 181 13 .628 (522)

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