Grass Valley trio keeps on playing

LOGAN, Utah – Nicknames have long been a part of the college football lexicon.From the “thunder and lightning” label given to a team’s one-two punch at running back, to the ‘wrecking crew’ designation bestowed upon the Texas A&M defenses of the 1980s, the handles earned by units and players often become cliché and overused by the time they are heard by the average fan.But the “Grass Valley Trio?”Now there is a new one.No, Utah State seniors James Brindley, Brennan McFadden and Chris Ulinski don’t double as Cache Valley’s premier western-folk band, but rather the three California natives all hail from the Sierra Nevada community of Grass Valley, Calif. If they had it their way they’d just be “James,” “Brennan,” and “Chris,” but as they reflect on their careers at the halfway mark of the 2009 season, they are more than willing to laugh over their hometown nickname.”I think we picked it up somewhere along the way,” explains Ulinski, laughing. “I remember our newspaper back home was the one that gave it to us originally, and then in all these articles since then it just kind of stuck with us.”Senior safety James Brindley chimes in, “I like it.”While the nickname may come off as hokey, there is nothing unspectacular about the on-field careers of the Grass Valley natives, who have quickly become three of the top standouts on the Aggie team. Brindley, the undersized but tenacious defensive team captain, was a second-team preseason all-Western Athletic Conference selection by Phil Steele magazine a year ago, and is among the conference’s leaders in terms of tackles per game and interceptions through the first half of the 2009 season.Not to be outdone by their high school and college classmate, Ulinski and McFadden have been stellar throughout their Aggie careers as well. Ulinski, who handles placekicking and kickoff duties for the Aggies, kicked the third longest field goal in school history with a 56-yard boomer against New Mexico State in 2008. He also led the WAC in touchbacks on kickoffs last season and has picked up right where he left off leading the league this season. Meanwhile, McFadden was a second-team all-WAC honoree last season and was on several preseason all-conference award lists this season. He anchors the Aggies’ offensive line, which is leading the way for USU’s offense, which is in the top half of the WAC statistics and among the nation’s leaders.So how did three of the WAC’s best at their respective positions all end up at Utah State by way of the same high school? The answer lies in a tremendous prep football program at Nevada Union high school, and a friendship which has endured for the better part of the last seven years.”Nevada Union is an amazing program,” says USU quarterbacks coach Kevin McGiven, who actively recruits the state of California, including the area in which Nevada Union is located. “[Nevada Union] Coach Humphers does a great job with his players.”Adds McGiven, “It is very evident with the work ethic that these three guys have of the type of program which they come from.”It doesn’t hurt that the three players were also the best of friends in high school, a distinction which carries on to this day.”We all went to different middle schools, but we met up in high school. We’ve been really good friends ever since freshmen year,” explains McFadden. Brindley concurs, saying, “High school was a good time. We were all super close, and we hung out. I would say we were best friends.”Looking at the three seniors and their friendship, you would think that they all made the decision to come to Logan to play football together. That was not the case however, as McFadden, who played tight end in high school, graduated from Nevada Union in 2005 — one year before teammates Bindley and Ulinski would graduate. Yet even while Brindley and Ulinski were helping to lead the Miners to a section title during the fall of 2005, McFadden was already fielding questions from the Utah State coaching staff when it came to his hard hitting best friend back in Grass Valley.”I was the first one out here, and right when I got out here the coaches were talking about James,” recalls McFadden, who redshirted during the 2005 season. “The previous coach who recruited our area really liked James and myself, but the whole year I was out here he was talking about James, saying, ‘I hope we can get James out here!’The coaching staff got its wish, and prior to the 2006 season Brindley committed to the Aggies. McFadden could not have been happier with his friend’s decision.”The coaching staff was thrilled, and so was I. I just couldn’t believe I was going to have one of my best friends out here to play football and share my college experience with,” says McFadden.With Brindley on board, it looked as if two of the best players from Grass Valley would make Cache Valley their home for the next four years. Yet there was one more twist in the story, one which would lead the Utah State coaching staff to the most unlikely of places; a beat-up rugby field of the campus of WAC rival Nevada.Following his own graduation from Nevada Union, Chris Ulinski had assumed that his football career was over. A former soccer player in high school, he enrolled at nearby the nearby University of Nevada and soon joined the club rugby team at the insistence of some friends from his dorm. At the same time, Utah State’s former coaching staff was looking to improve the team’s kicking game, and was willing to do whatever it would take to get a strong-legged, accurate kicker into Logan. It was then that McFadden stuck up for his old friend and teammate, starting in motion a series of events which would lead the “Grass Valley Duo” to become the “Grass Valley Trio.””The year after I arrived we needed some kickers, because our kicking situation had been pretty bad,” remembers McFadden. “I just knew my buddy Chris was really good at kicking in high school, and he was at the University of Nevada just being a regular student and playing rugby and stuff. I asked him one day when I was home for break if he still had his old highlight tape from kicking.”Ulinski gave McFadden a copy of the tape, who handed it over to assistant USU special teams coach Tony Flores. While McFadden remained optimistic that Coach Flores would show interest in his high school friend, the senior center admits that even he was taken aback by the quick response.”I gave it to the coaches, and they took one look at it and one day I was in the offices and they asked if I had Chris’s number. I didn’t know who they meant, so I was like ‘Chris who?’ And they said ‘Chris Ulinksi!’ It caught me in mid-walk, and I was like, ‘what, you want his number?’ So I called Chris and he came out on the trip, and the rest is history,” McFadden said.Ulinski had jumped at the chance to try his leg at kicking, but he knew the transition to Logan would not be easy, especially considering he had only a year of high school football under his belt. Fortunately, his two best friends from high school were there to help him get acquainted to both Utah State and the rigors of playing Division I football.”If it wasn’t for these guys, the coaches here wouldn’t even have known about me,” says Ulinski. “Coming here I lived in the dorms my freshmen year with James, and he introduced me to the whole team. It just made the transition so much easier.”The three players have played in some big games since the fall of 2006, but as they enter the middle part of their senior seasons one game looms above the rest: Nevada. The yearly match-up with their conference rival has always been special for the three Grass Valley natives, with this year’s showdown in Logan promising to be no exception. All three players were recruited by their local program, but none were offered a scholarship to play for the Wolf Pack. And while Ulinski would attend Nevada for a year, he, Brindley, and McFadden say that the chance to prove the Nevada coaches wrong in their initial assessment gives them extra incentive to play well against the Wolf Pack.”I tried to walk on at Nevada but the coaches just never gave me the opportunity,” says Ulinski. “I always try to do my best, but I would like to go out and try to have a good game and just prove to those coaches and myself that I can do it at the Division I level, and I am doing it.””They recruited all three of us but they didn’t offer us, so we definitely have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders,” adds McFadden.Aside from the chance to prove that they’ve succeeded at the Division I level despite not receiving a scholarship from their hometown program, the three seniors cite the ability to play in front of friends and family as “extra” incentive for this year’s Nevada game.”I love playing Nevada,” explains Brindley, his eyes lighting up at the mere mention of the Reno-based program. “I took a trip up there and pretty much they said that I was just too small. I like playing against them because it was so close to home and a lot of my friends go there. So it’s one of the bigger games for me.”With half of their senior season almost in the books, one would assume that the Grass Valley trio is on the verge of finally splitting up. Yet after more than seven years of friendship both on and off the field, the three standouts might just have a chance to continue their careers on the Sunday gridiron on the National Football League.”That’s my dream, and it’s definitely my goal,” McFadden says. “I know I have a lot of hard work still and have to get better every day, but I’ll see where it goes. If I get that opportunity I will take advantage of it.”Brindley, who has already overcome labels of being “too small” or “too slow” to play major college football, is taking the chance in stride. “I’m going to do whatever I can and see where it goes,” he says, echoing the thoughts of his teammate.NFL futures or not, the three senior leaders say they are happy with the way their college careers have progressed in Logan. They feel fortunate to have had the chance to expand on their high school friendship to a time that really has been the best years of their lives.”We’re still just as close as we were in high school, probably closer now just because we’ve been together now for seven years,” Brindley says, reflectively. “They are two of my best friends out here, and we have a lot in common with being from the same town. We can relate to each other, and it’s nice to have people who are so close to you out here.”Things look bright for the Grass Valley Trio to continue their good times and great hits the rest of this season and beyond.Utah State (1-4, 0-1 WAC) hosts Nevada (2-3, 1-0 WAC) in the Aggies’ Western Athletic Conference home opener on Saturday, Oct. 17. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. (MT) at USU’s Romney Stadium. Saturday’s game will be televised on CW 30 (Comcast Ch. 15 in Cache Valley).USU continues its two-game homestand by hosting Louisiana Tech on Saturday, Oct. 24, also at 1 p.m.For season and single-game ticket information, contact the USU Ticket Office at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, by phone by calling 1-888-USTATE-1 or (435) 797-0305, or online 24 hours a day at www.UtahStateAggies.com and clicking on the “buy/renew tickets” under the “tickets” drop down menu. -USU-

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