By Saturday night, the Class A team from Madera sits atop the high school football scene in California and is convinced the once-penniless, once-underdog group would take on any opponent on the gridiron.
“You can give anyone a game because we’re quick, we’re young and we’re fearless,” said Trujillo for the Luiseno Rancherias, known affectionately to fans as the Lancer squad.
The players turned perceived defensive disadvantages on their own opponents and eventually surpassed their four-classification counterparts on the gridiron. In last weekend’s game against the first-time contender Carmel High School, the home team’s 91-75 victory marked their second straight win over Carmel in the ever-changing soccer landscape of the Valley, where hundreds of thousands of players find their way to schools across 15 counties and served by about 800 schools.
“There’s no way we’re going to lose that game,” Trujillo said as his team celebrated their record-setting win against Carmel. “And that’s what we’re used to. We play scrappy.”
That scrappiness, far from weakening, has only helped fuel the Lancers’ road to glory. A fractured budget, lost riders and an assault conviction against team captain Alberto Trujillo — who was shot by a drug dealer while handcuffed and in police custody in 2012 — left the Lancers defenseless.
But the team’s deep roster of players — more than a dozen are walk-ons — and budget dwindleings paled in comparison to Carmel, where the team was an annual funder of the school’s Athletic Department in 2011.
“Carmel, that was $900,000 in revenue. We can’t even get out of out of Madera County,” said coach Richie Reisinger, who has served as head coach of the Lancers for the past six years.
Reisinger said his team traveled to play each opponent on the road at least once. But it cost the club about $2,000 for travel and meals at each site.
Those high travel and hotel costs led to a growing sense of being overlooked on the gridiron.
“My kids, they look at us as not athletes because we don’t go up against our opponents every year,” Reisinger said. “It’s like a rude awakening when we saw them at Lemoore, Coalinga and others we hadn’t played before.”
The story took a hit in 2013 when Carmel won its first and only state title.
For one season, the Lancers turned the tables, winning championships in 2012 and 2014. But none of those games against Carmel were competitive.
Still, the Lancers’ three year streak of stringing together wins against the bigger boys from neighboring regions and small Southern California schools carried on — building enough momentum to get the team noticed and supported nationally.
The Lancers, as expected, got bigger, and they were formidable opponents. They celebrated wins against teams like Milpitas, Montebello, Notre Dame, Dos Pueblos and Hoover High School.
In addition to playing at two high schools in Madera and one in Coalinga, the Lancers faced powerhouse football programs and had regular matchups with over 30 other schools.
But the two-year streak of triumphs couldn’t overcome the reality that they would not receive enough tickets to play at the venue the team asked for — this alone would leave them with enough funds to play and feed the entire team for a week or so.
It was for those low-ticket sales that the Lancers sought help from parents, the public and even the government.
The Lancers played every game on a reported budget of $40,000 in 2018, with an additional $15,000 being raised during the off-season. The team’s massive ambitions carried through to the off-season, too.
“We set a goal of raising $100,000 this season,” Reisinger said. “Everything’s in place with the guys to raise that much money and we can’t let up.”
Reisinger has raised the team’s expectations from a few victories last season. When the Lancers went from the low scores of 10-0 to the first-ever undefeated season last season, the team was undeterred.
“I’d say with a harder target, we wouldn’t have been as successful as we were last year,” Trujillo said. “We were so close.”