Brothers at arms: Former Rocklin High teammates face off in NorCal JC championship game

Kenny Lueth and Richie Watts shared the same ambitions and even shared the same job.

They were Bee All-Metro quarterbacks for Rocklin High School, similar in size, skill and reputation as good guys and good teammates. They were fine students, looked the part as athletes, could throw a ball with touch or with zip, and seemingly checked all the boxes as Division-I college prospects.

But for all of their upside, the reality was swift: There are only so many full scholarship offers to be had and not nearly enough options. So Lueth and Watts pondered what to do. Going the community college route was not one of them, but then it became their path, and the right one.

Now they face off Saturday in the Bay Area in the biggest game of their football careers. They are examples that perseverance pays off and that community college sports isn’t a step down. It’s a launching pad to new destinations.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Lueth leads streaking American River College into the CCCAA Northern California final to face his old friend in the 6-3, 210-pound Watts, who has top-seeded College of San Mateo rolling at 11-1. The winner will host the Dec. 10 state championship game against the winner of the Southern California final between Riverside (11-0) and Fullerton (10-1).

“I told ARC I wasn’t going there — told them no,” Lueth said this week. “I was ready to walk on at UC Davis. But the coaches told me to think about ARC. I watched one of the workouts and I saw how coach Jon Osterhout ran things, and I thought, ‘I need to give this some thought.’ I’m glad I did. It fits.”

Said Watts, “I was delusional in high school. I had no idea how good JuCo ball was, especially in California. It’s great. It opened my eyes. It was a wake-up call. Coming here has changed my football career 100%. It forces you to do something if you want to live your dreams, so go do something about it.”

The quarterbacks can laugh a little about where their journey has taken them. They supported each other at Rocklin while rotating during the spring COVID season of 2021. There was no animosity. They were in the same boat, sharing the same oars, headed the same direction. Now they’re big proponents of the JC route.

“Kenny’s my guy, a great person on and off the field,” Watts said. “In high school, the competition could’ve easily made it tense. It didn’t. For me, this was the right path here. It’s worked for him, too.”

Said Lueth, “We were brothers in high school and we still are. That’s what makes this game so fun.”

The first time ARC and CSM met, it was only fun for the winners. San Mateo prevailed 24-14 on Sept. 24 at ARC to move to 4-0. ARC dipped to 1-3, but the Beavers have not lost since, peeling off a seven-game winning streak to sport an 8-3 record.

Lueth has settled in nicely, overcoming a two-interception game against San Mateo with only two picks since. He has passed for 1,160 yards and 11 touchdowns on a team that is balanced. He had two touchdowns in a two-point win over Butte, two more in a one-point win over Santa Rosa and two more in a 35-10 rout of Sierra, all games in succession. His last effort was a three-touchdown effort to beat Laney of Oakland in a NorCal semifinal, 43-21.

Lueth lives at home in Placer County. He is taking 18 units and may pursue a career as a veterinarian for zoo animals.

Said Osterhout of his emerging passer, “His growth and maturation matches the entire team. Kenny’s success is his own self study, building momentum. It’s going to be a tremendous match up. Kenny and Richie were high school teammates, split time, and one wound up at one NorCal perennial power and the other at another perennial power. It sets up a great story line.”

Watts shines in San Mateo

Watts is a freshman in his second season at San Mateo, having gray-shirted his first season, meaning he didn’t suit up for games and worked on his body in the weight room. He became the starter this season and has passed for 2,046 yards and 19 touchdowns with just one interception. San Mateo’s only loss was 23-21 to Diablo Valley College on Oct. 21, a game in which Watts passed for 86 yards and had no touchdowns. Ever the true leader, he took his share of the heat.

“That loss was on me, a tough one to eat,” Watts said. “The loss helped us, and we got better. The support from the guys was insane. Everyone has everyone’s back here.”

Watts is taking 15 units and is pondering a career as a real estate lawyer. He and Lueth are back in the recruiting cycle, patient and more understanding of it all. They may log another JC season, and neither sounded even a bit disappointed by it. They’ve bought in. And they will land somewhere at some four-year program. Their coaches are certain of it. For now, the focus is on the here and now.

For Watts, that includes wondering where he’ll park. He lives with eight other San Mateo football players in a crowded house not far from campus, where parking is the real challenge. One can imagine what the in-house scene looks like with pizza boxes, water bottles and laundry all over. Mothers don’t visit places like this unless they shield their eyes and someone races through the place with a can or two of air freshener before the doorbell rings.

“All our rooms are separated by curtains, and we have a bed and a desk, but we love it,” Watt said with a laugh. “It doesn’t get better than living with your football teammates. “

Leuth overcomes injury

Lueth is in similar good spirits. The knee injury that stalled his senior fall prep campaign is a thing of the past. He doesn’t even wear a knee brace. He raves about his teammates, including national recruit tight ends Grayson Barnes of Rocklin High and Ian Simpson of Whitney High, and the linemen, and the backs, and the defense.

Lueth’s first game was his worst game, also something now in the past. He completed 1 of 10 passes for 23 yards, but ARC defeated rival Sacramento City College 15-13. Lueth kept working on his craft, never lost faith and found his groove.

“It was my first game since I blew out my knee in high school, and that first game this season was definitely rough,” he said. “I kept working on my game. You have to wipe games like that away. We all got better.”

On the JC experience in general, Lueth and Watts are aligned in their thinking. Watts said it’s a matter of going where it fits, of understanding how hard it is to get recruited by four-year programs, and being patient. Lueth’s quarterback coach at ARC is Jared Brown, a Bee All-Metro passer at Kennedy High School in 1991. Brown never thought he’d go the JuCo route, but he went to Sac City, where he excelled, before starring at UNLV on scholarship.

Said Lueth, “JC ball is so different from what people think. It gets a bad rap as a place that has guys who can’t play at the next level. It’s not true at all. It’s great football and it’s another opportunity to show what you can do.”