Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

Beau Bachtelle has a big opportunity: A chance to earn a starting position at a major Division I college football program.

He's worked for it his entire life, and he is striving to seize that moment.

"If I don't do what I need to do now, I won't have that opportunity in the future," Bachtelle said. "I've never been so excited. This is the biggest season of my life."

The 6-foot-5-inch, 280-pound defensive end is entering his final year at the University of Buffalo. The New York institution is more than 2,600 miles away from his hometown of Tuolumne, where he grew up.

So how did a mountain kid, who attended little Summerville High School, with an enrollment of less than a thousand students, find his way onto the Mid-American Conference campus?

Through dedication, determination and hard work.

"He didn't come in as a super talented player," Summerville football coach Ben Watson said. "He came in as a player who wanted to get better every day. He worked at it and he made it happen. His work ethic paid dividends. What's really neat about the whole thing is the guy worked really hard to get where he is."

Summerville Star

Bachtelle's life-long dream has always been to play football.

"I just wanted to play football forever," he said. "Ever since I was a kid, that's always been one of my dreams."

He first strapped on the helmet and pads as a fifth grader at Summerville Elementary for a youth team, the Tuolumne Cowboys. Soon after, he fell in love with everything that is football: the coaches, the games, the players, the practices and the team atmosphere.

Bachtelle's passion for football was evident from the outset; he couldn't be dragged off the gridiron after stepping on it. In fact, the last time he wasn't suiting up for football in the fall was in 2001 when he was too young to compete.

"The year I didn't play, it was in the fourth grade," Bachtelle said.

It wasn't until Bachtelle arrived at Summerville High School, that he realized football could be a part of his near future. Under the direction of head coach Ben Watson, he developed into an excellent small-school football player.

He played on the junior varsity squad as a chubby freshman in 2006, seeing time at center, and then was pulled up to varsity as an offensive lineman heading into his sophomore season.

But Bachtelle missed most of his first season on varsity with an arm injury.

"When he first came in, he got hurt right away," Watson said. "He hurt his arm early in practices. And so, he was pretty frustrated that season. He didn't really get to play and contribute the way he would have liked. He just dedicated himself at that point to be a good football player. By the time his junior year came around he did really well."

Using his injury and lack of playing time as motivation, Bachtelle evolved into a two-way starter as a junior in 2008.

"I didn't really hit my growth spurt until I was a junior in high school," Bachtelle said. "I was always kind of a chunky kid playing O-line. Once my junior year hit, I sprouted up, got faster and more athletic."

As a senior, Bachtelle was voted team captain by Watson. The Bears captured the Mother Lode League championship that same season with an undefeated 5-0 record (10-2 overall), and Bachtelle was awarded MLL Lineman of the Year after making 63 tackles from his defensive line position, while doubling as an offensive tackle. He helped the Bears earn a trip to the Division IV Sac-Joaquin Section Championships.

"We had a real good season," Bachtelle said.

For his standout prep days, Bachtelle was selected to play in the Lions All-Star Football Classic upon graduation from Summerville. After banging helmets in the annual all-star game with some of the section's top players, Bachtelle was convinced that he was good enough to play at the next level.

"The fact that I made it into the all-star game as a defensive player that made me want it more," Bachtelle said of a college career. "Making the game made me want to play defense. It was a lot more fun. It made me enjoy the game more. I was now the guy getting in on the action. On defense you play for yourself and everyone around you. I really enjoyed it."

And it was at that moment that Bachtelle decided to dedicate his life to football.

"He's just a great leader," Watson said. "Quite a character as well. But super hard worker, especially in the weight room offseason work out program. Outstanding. Really bound and determined to be the very best he could be as a football player."

Modesto Mountain Man

When Bachtelle made the decision to play football for the Modesto Junior College Pirates and head coach Sam Young, he entered the program as a tall and husky 6-foot-5-inch, 215-pound lineman.

"I thought he was a guy with a big frame that had an opportunity maybe to fill out and play for us," Young said. "There is a little bit of a learning curve going from high school to college."

So Bachtelle turned to MJC's strength and conditioning coach Russ Lewis and set his goals at getting bigger. Lewis, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, worked with Bachtelle aggressively at improving his physique.

"He was raw," Lewis said.

Soon, Bachtelle was a constant regular in the weight room. By the time the season started, he added the needed muscle and pounds to his frame.

"He came from the foothills," Lewis said. "Raw talent. It was his tenacity and dedication. He just had all these incredible traits. He was not that physically gifted yet. His ability to work harder than everyone else is what separated him from the rest. He never missed a workout."

The time Bachtelle invested in the weight room paid off immediately on the field. That rawness sizzled into a lean and well-done product, and he found playing time, despite hailing from a "small school."

"He's a great player as an example," Young said. "It doesn't matter what the size is of your high school, if you put in the work, it'll work out."

Bachtelle eventually blossomed into an effective starter.

"You can't coach six-five," Young said. "He was a little underdeveloped for the college game, but he played quite a bit for us as a freshman."

After his first year at MJC in 2010, Bachtelle spent his entire offseason honing his skills and working on his craft. His commitment to the strength and conditioning program increased, and his drive to improve sky rocketed. So did his leadership.

And his coaches noticed it right away.

"He's just a real high-energy guy - has a great motor," Young said. "He always worked hard in-season and off-season to really bulk himself up. He became a real all-around player. A team captain. A guy that really set the tone for the team. His work ethic was fantastic."

Bachtelle then transformed into a premier junior college player.

"He was a force for us," Young said. "He really did a great job for us. He was an all-conference lineman his sophomore year."

Bachtelle finished third on the team in tackles as a defensive end.

"For any lineman that's unusual," Young said.

During the 2011 season, Bachtelle recorded 38 1/2 tackles (10 for losses), five sacks, three fumble recoveries and a block kick. He even scored a touchdown that sparked a victory.

"It was on a fumble recovery - a bad snap to the punter that he recovered in the end zone," Young said. "We were ecstatic. Great hustle play. We hadn't scored until that play. And then we won the game."

For Bachtelle's contributions as a sophomore, he was awarded by Young and the coaching staff the Iron Pirate Award, given to the player who exemplifies the best dedication off the field.

"He's one of the greatest athletes - and I been coaching close to 40 years - that I have ever met," Lewis said.

Bachtelle also received the team's top award, the Pirate Pride Award, given to the most impactful and inspirational player.

"Beau's just really enthusiastic," Young said. "Great effort. No quit on any given play. Never took any plays off. He jumps off the field, just in terms of his effort from play to play. From the snap to the whistle, he is going full blast."

And that type of effort garnered attention from college coaches.

"He fit the profile of a Division I college athlete," Young said. "He backed that up with great academics too."

Bachtelle enrolled in 18-20 units every semester at MJC and graduated with his Associate's Degree in Sociology.

Soon the recruitment for Bachtelle heated up. Division I schools started to show interest, including the University of Buffalo, and several Division II schools made offers.

But Bachtelle was Buffalo-bound after the university offered him a full-ride athletic scholarship.

"What a great success story," Young said. "It's just a real tribute to Beau not being afraid of setting his goals high. He really, really set his sights high and was willing to pay the price to do that. And it worked."

Buffalo Beau

With Bachtelle's foundation firmly established at MJC and Summerville, he plans to build on his past success. And he has lofty expectations for his final year in 2013 at Buffalo.

"This season, I want to put myself out there as a leader," he said. "And hopefully win a MAC championship."

The 20-year-old is expected to replace the departed Steven Means, who was selected with the 147th pick (fifth round) in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I got big shoes to fill," Bachtelle said. "I have everything to prove. I like being in that positon. It's good motivation."

That's why Bachtelle has been training harder than before, since the end of last season.

"When he graduated, I stepped up," Bachtelle said. "Winter conditioning went great. I projected myself as a leader. When spring came, I stepped up and got the spot."

Bachtelle soon emerged as the leader he knew he was, and recorded seven tackles and a sack during Buffalo's annual spring game in April.

After the semester concluded in May, he returned home to visit family and train with his former strength and conditioning coach at MJC, Russ Lewis.

In a two-week span, Bachtelle endured more than 20 workouts. Most of them included intense and rigorous exercises focusing on explosiveness, lateral movement and speed.

"He's a leader," Lewis said. "A motivator. A no-quit attitude. Excellent person. Accountable. Punctual."

When Bachtelle flew back to Buffalo, he was able to reach his strength training goals, squatting a personal-best 655 pounds and hang cleaning 365 pounds, respectively.

"As a strength coach, he's as strong as any pro football player," Lewis said. "I'm a 100 percent sure of that."

For voluntary workouts this summer, the Buffalo Bulls and Bachtelle have been conditioning, lifting weights and running four days a week.

"We're just finishing up summer conditioning," he said. "Doing hardcore workouts, explosive olympic lifting in the weight room. Getting prepared for the season."

He's also one of many seniors taking charge in player-ran practices twice a week.

"We run freshmen through the drills to make sure they're ready to go, so they're not too far behind," Bachtelle said. "It's teaching the new guys the system. Going over it one-on-one and really helping them understand what we do as a defense."

Bachtelle is noticing the progression that the Bulls are making this offseason from spring to summer. And he believes that the continuity from teammate to teammate should be a force to be reckoned with.

"This year, the mentality that the entire team has with each other is better," he said. "The unity is way different. It's completely different. It's closer. Every one is so prepared. We want to win this year. We want to go to a bowl game."

Bachtelle has also been studying the defensive playbook and watching film constantly to give him an edge in the fall. He said that he's gotten better at reading an opposition's offense, which is helping him recognize a team's offensive tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

"Football's a lot of studying," he said. "They put a big emphasis of that here, and that's really made me a better player."

In his first season at the Division I level as a junior college transfer last year, he played in all 12 games registering 11 tackles, including a season-high five stops against Kent State.

"I didn't get as many reps as I would like," he said. "But every game that I went in, I made plays."

The ultimate goal for Bachtelle, as a senior, is to cement a starting role on the depth chart, and to wreak havoc for the Bulls like he did at MJC and Summerville.

He has his eye on the season opener against the Ohio State Buckeyes onAug. 31, that is set to be nationally televised on ESPN2.

"I'm ready to go out there and shock the world," Bachtelle said. "To shock the nation and win the damn game."