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3:10 to Yuba: The final road trip of the ‘Santos era’ for De Anza Football
Six-hour bus rides, a massive win and an unintentional farewell. How the Mountain Lions managed to put it all together at the very end of their toughest year.
February 11, 2022
Tony Santos has a big smile on his face.
It’s a cold Saturday morning on Nov. 8, and he knows that the young men on his football team are normally not early-risers. So he’s cracking jokes. He’s pulling people into a lively conversation around the humble breakfast spread of PB&J sandwiches, fruit and boiled eggs that he set up outside of his office. He just wants his guys to be as excited as he is for their final game of the 2021 season.
But it’s 7 a.m, and the young Mountain Lions know that they have the longest bus ride of the year ahead of them.
For their last game, Coach Santos had booked an away game at Yuba College over 160 miles away from De Anza College, a few towns north of Sacramento, which makes it roughly a six hour bus ride to and from. For this reason, everyone knows it’s a long day ahead and you could hardly fault them for hanging their heads.
Rather, it’s been a long year. The Mountain Lions had only managed to win one out of their last nine games, and were coming off back to back blowout losses. But considering that this season almost didn’t happen at all, there was also a sense that everyone was just grateful to be back doing something they love.
“Even though on paper this was one of the least successful teams (on the field) I’ve coached, it really was one of the most satisfying because I was challenged in ways I’ve never been before,” Santos said. “We’ve had more downs than ups, but life is always going to give you curveballs and adversity; how you handle it shows your character.”
Unlike the pros, the NCAA, or even high schools which were able to return to in-person much earlier, junior colleges, or “JUCO” schools as they are otherwise known, were the last institutions in the state to come back after the initial pandemic shutdowns.
Many JUCO athletes, faculty and staff spent the majority of the previous year watching from the sidelines as their wealthier counterparts figured out how to implement rapid testing and provide safe returns to athletic competition. It’s a bitter pill to swallow at this level, being the after-thought in the national debate about education in the times of COVID-19, but it’s a feeling not too unfamiliar regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not.
In JUCO sports, the players and staff quickly learn that they must find their own solutions instead of waiting around for help. For example, in 2018, when they were having one of their most successful seasons on the field, the De Anza football program was almost scrapped as a part of the college’s broader budget crisis.
“My coaching staff and I all took pay cuts that year. We did whatever we could, including paying for our own buses,” Santos said. “It was a bittersweet year winning a championship and making coach of the year. All that time, we were actively fighting for our survival.”
On road trips, the offense and defense usually ride on two separate buses with the small athletic training staff and equipment person following closely behind in their own cars. The initial ride to Yuba is mostly quiet. One could say that it is this way because these young men are preparing their minds and body for battle, but it’s also likely that like any of us, they’re just on their smartphones or trying to catch up on some sleep.
To Santos’ delight, his team arrives at their host destination a whole three hours early. He steps off the bus first and makes first contact with the opposing head coach who cordially welcomes them to Yuba College. The two men share commiserations, as the 49ers are the only team with a worse record in the conference; and that day, the Mountain Lions actually get an indoor locker room all to themselves, something that is not always a given.
As the players haul out their gear out from underneath the buses and make their way inside, they talk about how different Yuba county, with its endless landscape of rural fields, is to where they had just come from. A few feet away, second year defensive tackle Gabriel Agular-Pinon remarked about how when he last played against Yuba, they “kept talking (smack) even though we were beating them.” He hoped that the day’s game would yield a similar outcome.
For second-year players like him, the Yuba game carried a unique significance: it was their last JUCO game ever.
Like any other student at a community college, the JUCO athlete knows that they only have so much time before they reach the end of their rope and have to move on. For the talented or fortunate, they might already have a scholarship offer lined up from a four-year university; but for team leaders like Agular-Pinon and sophomore starting quarterback Jordan Ausbie, they are still taking that decision day-by-day; as the team’s record and year of inactivity have not helped matters.
In addition to his full-time responsibilities, Santos says he’s on the phone all the time trying to recruit players into De Anza, but also recruiting them out to whatever next level is available. The football community is both large and small at the same time, and these conversations take place almost all 365 days of the year. As players start to form a long line behind head trainer David Kobata, who expertly tapes up their joints and extremities, Santos huddles with Ausbie to talk about the other positions they plan on utilizing him in against Yuba in order to expand the highlight package he can send out to recruiters.
Defensive assistant coach Nate Tia is well versed in these transactions. He also played defensive tackle at De Anza in 2010 before transferring to McPherson College in Kansas. Before then, he and his brother Miah both knew Santos when they were in highschool. Now that it’s almost come full circle for him, he just wishes the team had better support.
“The COVID situation really set us back during training camp and a lot of good players chose to sit out rather than deal with the uncertainty,” Tia said. He was referring to how De Anza had shut down its entire athletics department after an outbreak of positive cases and how the subsequent vaccine mandate caught many players off guard.
“We’re going to be so much better next season.”
Before the game kicks off, Yuba College holds a small ceremony for its sophomore players akin to the more widely known “Senior Night.” An announcer reads off the names of those playing their final game, and those players get flowers and recognition from their loved ones. While the 49ers are taking pictures, the De Anza players are more focused on their warmups and game plan. The massive roster splits itself into five groups by position, and Santos’ assistants drill them on what they want to execute. Off to the corner of their sideline, a single ambulance also pulls onto the field as per standard procedure — a quiet reminder of the dangers of the game.
Perhaps indicative of the two pregame buildups, the Mountain Lions dominated early from the start. Their defensive front forced an early three-and-out on Yuba’s opening drive, and when the Mountain Lions got the ball, they marched 75 yards downfield capped off by a quarterback sneak by Ausbie for a touchdown. Two minutes later, their special teams then blew up a Yuba punt, setting up another easy goal line score by freshman running back Toluwalope Ayedegbe.
Five minutes into the game and the Mountain Lions are already up 14-0. The De Anza sideline almost couldn’t believe it. Freshman Grant Stevenson, who was redshirting the season and helping out with equipment, had a big smile on his face as he gleefully remarked, “we’re actually winning.”
The rest of the first half would play out almost exactly how it started with the De Anza defense leading the way and setting the tone. Whether it be forcing a punt or a turnover on downs, the Mountain Lions held their opponents to a total of three yards through two quarters. This looked nothing like the team that had often found itself behind early in games this year. They were having fun. Although, not everybody. A minute before the halftime whistles blew, a frustrated receiver slammed his helmet onto the ground and yelled, “all I do is ride the bench and run routes.” Time was running out to make a name for oneself.
Heading into the locker room, Santos looks at ease. He can finally put away the “glass-half-full/stay-positive” halftime speech he’d gotten used to delivering and instead just tell his guys to enjoy the moment. He also had a feeling things would turn out this way. “The tape on (Yuba) has been pretty consistent all year,” Santos said. “We knew we could get to their QB anytime we wanted.”
The third quarter was more of the same: De Anza would keep piling it on almost as if they were exercising all of their demons from the tough year. Sophomore Jevon Smith opened the half by returning a punt for a touchdown sending the Away sideline into a frenzy. They were up 26-0 with still a whole half to play.
From there, players up and down the roster got their chance to add their name to the box score. Santos even let both of his backup quarterbacks play out the half, and true to his word, started lining Ausbie up at tailback and slot receiver.
The final tally: De Anza 40, Yuba 0.
A scoreline that was not only flattering to even the biggest optimist, but in hindsight, felt like a culmination of a season of perseverance. “That was the first game all year where we executed from start to finish,” Ausbie said. “We had a few close ones this year that slipped away.”
Sophomore linebacker Iretunde Akinsola sought out a photographer to take a picture of him and coach Tia, whom he credits with recruiting him to De Anza after he had struggled to find a role at Chabot College a year prior.
“I’m so grateful for these guys and am proud that we stuck together until the very end,” Akinsola said. “It was an honor to play with them and for (coach Santos). I’ve never had a coach so interested in my well-being, not just as a player, but as a person off the field as well.”
“There’s no way I could have gotten through college without football.”
For Agular-Pinon, who at the time of this publication had chosen to go to San Jose State and try his hand as a walk-on, finishing his De Anza career on a high note meant a lot. The year away from the game during the COVID-19 shutdown had affected him a great deal.
“I was nervous about losing track of what I’ve been working towards all of my career,” Agular-Pinon said. “But this coaching staff has supported me personally, spiritually as well as athletically. They gave me connections and opened doors that I didn’t have before.”
The mood in the visitors’ locker room completely flipped from that of the morning. The players for once are all celebrating and blasting their music which can be heard all the way from the guest parking lot. While the players are changing, Santos’ student assistants are busy packing up their camera equipment which produces the aforementioned game tape that he had alluded to. Even though the contest on the field was over, game day operations never really stop.
As people start making their way back to the buses, Santos is busy passing out dinner that he picked up even earlier that morning and stowed away: barbeque tri-tip and chicken sandwiches from Zanottos, a San Jose institution that he says he has connections with.
Like he does with a lot of things, Santos tends to have a story behind it.
Anthony “Tony” Santos has, compared to many in the area, deep roots in the San Jose/Northern California community. His grandparents immigrated as migrant farm workers from Puerto Rico and he and his parents still live near some of that land to this day. He still remembers and keeps in touch with many in the “old San Jose” community such as the Zanotto family kids whom he went to school with.
Before De Anza, he coached a successful football program at Westmont High School (where he is still a teacher) before joining then Mountain Lions head coach Dan Atencio’s staff as an offensive coordinator. He eventually took over the top job in 2016 when his old boss departed, and on the bus ride home, he reels off the names of former players and coaches he’s mentored who have gone on to places as high up as the NFL. He says that outside of football, he views his job as simply being in the “helping business.”
By the time the team buses make it back to Cupertino, it is nearly 9 p.m. and the buzz from winning their best game of the season has still not worn off. On the offense bus at least, the linemen break out into carpool karaoke, shamelessly belting “Party in the U.S.A” by Miley Cyrus at the top of their lungs.
Before it can even hit them, the Mountain Lions’ season is over and there isn’t much time for any long good-byes. They’ve already spent all day together and equipment and facilities manager Raymond Cornell just wants to get all of the college’s gear back before midnight. One by one, sophomores, freshmen and even redshirts line up to return what is not theirs: pads, helmets and jerseys.
For someone who has been awake for 18 straight hours, Santos doesn’t show much worse for wear. He runs around in the dark supervising the return of said equipment, settles the bill for the bus company and makes sure all the leftover food and drink is stowed away properly for those that might need it in the coming week. In his office, his three student assistants are already cutting the day’s game film together for him to review, which he’ll do once everyone has left for home.
At the end of the night, when it is just him in his office, Santos ponders what the future holds for him. During the season, De Anza had posted a full time job opening for his role, which as he reminded, he scaled back on paper in order to make the numbers work. Now, suddenly there was enough money again.
“I’ve dedicated almost a quarter of my life to this school,” Santos said. “I love where I’m at and the work we’re doing.”
“If they have to go through an entire process to justify paying someone full time again, I guess I understand.”
What happens if they don’t give him the job?
“I haven’t really thought about that, but I know that it would be a difficult pill to swallow,” he said. “At this point, I’m not looking to go anywhere else. I’d love to stay here.”
“We’re going to be so much better next season.”
[Editor’s note: Weeks after reporting on this piece concluded, De Anza College named Joe D’Agostino head football coach.]
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