The Argonaut High Mustangs of Jackson filled their week by planning for championship rings, championship sweatshirts and two parades.
That’s right. One parade wasn’t enough. Why? Because, as the 2021 season showed, Argonaut just didn’t care.
They didn’t care about the size or enrollment of their opponent. They didn’t care that they’re the smallest school in the Mother Lode League. And they didn’t care that they were the perceived underdogs in many of their games.
Place emphasis on “perceived.”
“We don’t bat an eye at school size,” said Rick Davis, the Argonaut coach for 20 seasons, this week. “If we did, we wouldn’t even come out to play.”
Argonaut’s rise to the CIF Division 6 AA state title, clinched by an impressive 47-14 romp last weekend over Quartz Hill – the fourth quarter was clocked – may have been the most unusual story of any state champion.
That’s why they received ultra-special recognition in the Gold Country of Amador County. They began their Friday with a parade in Ione – more on that later – and received more cheers on the streets of Jackson that night.
Such were the just rewards of the Jackson Giant Killers.
For starters, consider Argonaut’s enrollment of 532 students. Then, in order, let’s proceed through the Mustangs’ playoff run:
— 34-10 over Liberty Ranch of Galt, enrollment of about 1,200;
— 37-24 (Argonaut led 37-9) over Livingston, about 1,200;
— 31-20 in the Sac-Joaquin Section VI final over Rosemont of suburban Sacramento, nearly 1,400;
— 31-20 in the Regional final over St. Vincent de Paul of Petaluma, a parochial school of about 220;
— And the resounding win over Quartz Hill… wait for it… nearly 3,200. The Mustangs joined Vanden as the section's only state champions.
“We always tell our kids that when we cross that line, it’s 11 on 11,” Davis said.
Point made, coach.
Argonaut (12-3) became the first state champion in school history and the first MLL football team to bring home the major hardware. It helped that all except one playoff game – the Rosemont section final – were staged on home turf at Dan Barnett Field. Then again, how do you quantify belting a school six times your size?
“Quartz Hill came in two busloads and had 56 in uniform,” Davis said. “We showed up with our 30 guys and went after it.”
Argonaut spotted the Royals seven points, then ran off the next 47. Mateo Flores, a junior, rushed for 222 yards and three touchdowns, plus a touchdown pass from senior quarterback Beau Davis. Colby Eckhart accounted for three TDs, one of them an 80-yard dash after an interception in the end zone by Randy Fage. The explosive Eckhart rushed for 140 yards and logged two interceptions.
Davis, the coach’s son, did everything for Argonaut. The three-year standout added linebacker chores – the first time he played defense since eighth grade – and led the team in tackles en route to his MLL Defense Player of the Year honor. That he survived the grueling 15-game marathon spoke to Argonaut’s success.
“He wore gloves on defense to protect his hands. When he switched to offense, he took off the gloves, toweled his hands and arms off and put on the wristband,” Davis said. “We really needed him on defense this year.”
Argonaut’s speed and quick-strike ability, combined with its rugged defense, made it different from the pure power attack of the 2004 section-champion Mustangs. Davis, who stepped down as coach to enjoy his three children’s collegiate years, said the 2021 team is easily one of his top three.
“They were the best accomplishment-wise,” he said. “That would be a heck of a game against the 2004 team.”
Davis rushed for 1,429 yards and 15 touchdowns and passed for seven TDs. Flores totaled 1,278 yards and 19 touchdowns and Eckhart 1,278 yards and 20 scores. Caleb McElfish had 647 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Argonaut averaged 400 yards and 40 points a game against their opponents’ 19 points per game.
Argonaut’s season didn’t start well. The Mustangs opened with COVID-induced losses to Union Mine and Hughson, the latter when they were barely able to field a team. From there, Argonaut rolled until perennial MLL champion Sonora rallied from a 14-6 deficit to top the Mustangs 28-21.
“We realized that night we were good enough to beat Sonora,” Davis said. “We learned a lot and just worked a little harder.”
One week later, Argonaut reclaimed the Rotary Bell with a 43-0 shutout over archrival Amador of Sutter Creek. Davis, Eckhart and Josiah Sanders (his cousin is MLL Player of the Year Roger Alderman of Sonora) took their lumps during a 3-7 season as sophomores. This year’s reward was worth it.
All three made the ALL-MLL team, along with offensive linemen Austin Hills and Zach Steele, Fage at wide receiver, Flores at running back, defensive end Robert Spigarelli, McElfish at linebacker, and character honoree Fernando Martinez.
The season was well-timed, as Amador County celebrated 100 years of high school football. The county’s school districts merged during the early 1980s, resulting in the closure of Ione High and the combining of Ione and Jackson High to form Argonaut. The school was named for an old argonaut mine not far from the campus.
Emotions were frayed, as one might expect, but there was a compromise. Argonaut adopted Jackson’s colors – green, white and yellow – and Ione’s Mustang mascot.
By the way, about half of this year's roster came from Ione -- about 11 miles west of Jackson -- hence the regional connection.
When the Mustangs waved to the crowd last week, they knew they were responsible for unprecedented school and county history. All because they didn’t care.