The name on the stadium’s scoreboard is a daily reminder to Mike Papadopoulos of just how big and important Tom Zunino was to football at Vacaville High School.
Zunino was a Solano County and Northern California coaching legend, winning five Delta League and four Monticello Empire League titles. He was one of the most successful coaches in the area, compiling a .597 winning percentage (215-145-12) in 37 years as Vacaville’s head coach. He had winning seasons in 26 of those years.
As its athletic director, Zunino oversaw interscholastic sports at Vacaville, with the Bulldogs winning Monticello Empire League “School of the Year” 14 times. In 2010, he was inducted into the inaugural CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame. He was the chairman of the original section football playoff committee.
“He is, and always will be, the biggest mentor person that I’ve looked up to,” Papadopoulos said last week. “I’ve been blessed with inheriting something that was successful long before I got here. There’s just such a strong foundation of how we go about doing things that Tom started such a long time ago.”
Today, it’s Papadopoulos who is the man in charge of Vacaville High football, carrying on the lessons and philosophies and systems that he learned while working right alongside Zunino, his late father-in-law, who died in September 2008.
But beyond drawing up all the X’s and O’s, creating the base offenses and defenses and the different schemes and emphasizing fundamentals is something else that Zunino passed on to Papadopoulos. It’s the way you treat people, said Papadopoulos, who won the Sac-Joaquin Division II title this month as the Bulldogs’ head coach, capping a 4-0 run in the playoffs.
“Treating people the right way and getting them to buy in to what you’re doing is probably bigger than anything,” said Papadopoulos. “We’re really blessed to have a great staff that all thinks the same way and treats kids the same way. These are things that happened long before we got here.”
The 2006 football season was big for Vacaville. It was like no other for the Bulldogs, who beat four straight opponents in the playoffs to win their first-ever Sac-Joaquin title, going 13-1. It was Papadopoulos’ second year as head coach and that season he had Zunino running the defense.
“Tom had a vision a long, long time ago that just continues to perpetuate itself year after year,” Papadopoulos said following the title run that year. Vacaville, a 37-36 winner over Merced in the championship game, led the state in rushing and had the No. 3 offense in California that year.
This year was equally impressive for Vacaville, which after winning the MEL title, had playoff wins over Roseville (54-34), St. Mary’s-Stockton (27-19), Buhach Colony-Atwater (27-17) and Folsom (39-35). The No. 4 seeded Bulldogs (13-1 overall) ended the season on a 12-game win streak and set school records for most rushing yards (5,549), most total yards (6,681), and most points (645).
They won with a big-time offense, led by Melvin Mason (1,971 yards rushing, 32 touchdowns) and Curtis Goins (1,456 yards, 17 TDs).
The Bulldogs’ season ended after the SJS title game, as section commissioners chose Del Oro-Loomis to represent Northern California in the Div. II CIF State Bowl Championship game. Del Oro lost Saturday in the state finals to Helix-La Mesa, 35-24, at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
“There’s been quite a lot of talk about the disappointment side of not being selected and those things. The flip side for us … you put things in perspective, you do the things that you can completely control,” explained Papadopoulos. “How can we be disappointed in our season with everything that’s gone on? To be able to finish the season like we did, win our last football game, and being in the playoffs ... it’s been another magical run for us.”
Vintage brought enormous respect, credibility, prestige and pride to the MEL with its 1980 and 1986 Sac-Joaquin Section championships. After Vacaville won in 2006, Napa captured its first crown in 2007. Now Vacaville has another title.
It’s tough and demanding on everyone — including coaches, players, support staff and administrators — when a team advances that far into the postseason. Next year, the CIF will have regional championships in both Northern and Southern California to determine which teams go to the state finals, making for an extra week and an even longer season that can be taxing both mentally and physically.
“It is a grind for everybody to get it done,” said Troy Mott, Napa’s head coach. “It’s just so rewarding when you’re able to do it, because of all the work by so many people that has to be put in. It’s a huge commitment by the staff and by the players. I remember we had to go through Franklin of Elk Grove, Elk Grove, Pleasant Grove and then St. Mary’s. Those are four top-notch programs. You just don’t get a break once you get in the playoffs. It’s a pedal to the metal.
“It consumes you — a lot of sleepless nights. You have those anyways. But they’re intensified, because you’re just trying to cover every basis possible on the football field and off. When it all comes together and everybody gets on the same page, it’s really gratifying to get there.”
Vacaville’s only loss was to Marin Catholic-Kentfield, 33-29, in a Week 2 nonleague game. The Bulldogs had wins over Napa (35-21) and Vintage (63-26) during the MEL season.
“Our schedule made us better right away,” Papadopoulos said. “We figured out strengths and weaknesses right away and were able to make some personnel changes and some scheme changes.
“Seniors really took charge of what was going on. Our entire team took a lot of personal responsibility in what was going on and committed to the things that we were trying to do.”
Vacaville’s title-winning season will go down as one of the top accomplishments in Solano County history. Papadopoulos said he will remember the family atmosphere that was created and the resolve of the players when he thinks about this year’s team.
“I’m excited to see where this group of kids lands 10 years from now, just because of the lessons that they learned throughout the season. It’s pretty powerful stuff,” he said. “The kids are just excited and proud of having something like this forever. They’re in a really special club now. It’s a pretty special time for us.”
Making the season extra special were supportive and encouraging e-mails, text messages and phone calls that Papadopoulos got from area coaches during the Bulldogs’ run. He heard from Napa, Vintage, Bethel, Vallejo and Vanden.
“It’s a great representation of our league,” Mott said. “We should all be proud of them that they got that far.”
Said Papadopoulos: “Probably the most reassuring thing is something like that just hopefully tells us that we’re doing it the right way as well. It’s really nice to hear those things from guys that you look up to. We’re really lucky to have what we have on a personal level with the schools around here. It’s really neat. It’s special, because I really don’t believe you see that in other areas.”
Bethel’s 11-2 season, highlighted by the Jaguars winning the Solano County Athletic Conference title and beating Jesuit-Carmichael (24-17) and Grant-Sacramento (26-21) in the Div. I playoffs, brings even more respect to the area.
“We understand that we’re forgotten a little bit,” Papadopoulos said. “We’re not Sacramento, we’re not the Bay Area. I feel like our community is getting the respect that it deserves, throughout all the communities within our counties.”
It was coaching legends like Zunino who worked hard to make a name for this area of the Sac-Joaquin Section. Papadopoulos is reminded of that every day when he pulls into the parking lot at Vaca High and sees Zunino Stadium.
“It takes work to maintain tradition, getting people connected and keeping them connected in what you’re doing,” Papadopoulos said. “We have a lot of pride in what we’re doing.”
Papadopoulos has been Vacaville’s head coach since 2005 and he was an assistant on the staff from 1993 to 2004. He’s also been the school’s head track and field coach since 1994.
Gibson plays for Seahawks
Mike Gibson, a fourth-year player who makes his home in Napa, played in Sunday’s game for the Seattle Seahawks. It was the first regular season action of the year for Gibson, a back-up guard-center. He played in Seattle’s 38-14 win over the Chicago Bears.
Gibson, a Napa High graduate, was signed to a one-year contract by the Seahawks on Dec. 6.
He was in training camp with the club over the summer and played in the four preseason games, but was released in early September with NFL teams trimming their squads to get down to the league-mandated 53-man roster for the start of the regular season.
The San Francisco 49ers and Seahawks play Saturday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle at 1:15 p.m.