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Instant impact: Sierra sophomores leaving their mark on VOL title chase

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Sierra finds itself atop the Valley Oak League standings, tied with tonight’s opponent, Oakdale. The Timberwolves have had many heroes emerge along the way, but among their most consistent performe...

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin/

POSTED October 17, 2014 12:56 a.m.

In nearly a decade at his post, Sierra head coach Jeff Harbison has rarely dipped into his lower-levels for talent.

“I’m not a big fan of bringing players up,” Harbison said.

Sometimes, though, the temptation is just too strong; the players just too good.

So following a revealing lower-level scrimmage last fall, Harbison allowed himself one dip after the season. One dip yielded three players – and a mountain of success.

The Timberwolves’ rocket start to the season has been boosted by heralded sophomore safeties Nashon Tamiano, SeuSeu Alofaituli and Marcos Castillo.

All three start for a defensive unit that has forced running clocks in five of its six games, and their presence on the varsity team now suggests brighter days may lie ahead for a program searching for its first Sac-Joaquin Section championship.

“It’s great to have these three kids out there,” said Harbison, his team 3-0 in the Valley Oak League and 6-0 overall. “They’re give-everything-you-have type of kids. They’ve played well and they’ve been instrumental.”

While Harbison has been reluctant in years past to mix in underclassmen, the formula works.

In an ironic twist, the Timberwolves’ opponent tonight has built an empire on the backs of sophomore call-ups.

Oakdale (3-0, 6-0) has won nine VOL titles since the dawn of the new millennium and reached the 2012 CIF State Bowl game, where it eventually lost to Centennial.

The catalysts for that state run were seniors Spencer Thomas, Marcus Northcutt, Hondo and Miko Arpoika and Bastian Jimenez, all of whom joined the varsity team as sophomore starters.

The latest version of the Mustangs has drawn comparisons to that 2012 because of their young leaders.

Juniors Adam Olsen (starting quarterback), Darus Nelson (running back), Broderick Medrano (linebacker) and Ryan Raham (linebacker) also cut their teeth with the varsity squad as sophomores.

“You do it because you have to. It’s something unique. When a kid comes up, you have to have a core group of kids willing to be unselfish and see the big picture,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “Kids also have to be willing to make some mistakes. There’s going to be some growing pains.

“We don’t have any up right now, but sometimes they’re easier to coach than seniors because they have a tremendous desire to please and are a lot more patience with playing time and opportunities.”

Historically, Harbison has decided against breaking up his lower-level teams.

In nine previous seasons, Harbison had only called up three sophomores. Two were out of necessity, he said, and the other was Anthony Cota, a rare talent at running back.

Tamiano, Alofaituli and Castillo come from the same mold as Cota. They were the cornerstones on a freshman team that captured the Valley Oak League championship, and all three bring a different skillset and personality to the safety position.

Tamiano is energetic and “in on every play,” Harbison said. “The kid gives everything he has and that includes practice. We can’t even get him off the scout team. He just wants to play football and wants to be out there anytime he can.”

The 5-foot-8, 203-pound safety can double as a linebacker in Sierra’s scheme – and his tackling ability certainly qualifies.

“He’s a load. When he hits you, you feel it,” Harbison said. “He brings it on every play … with everything he’s got.”

And he’s not afraid to hold others accountable.

“Nashon gets in people’s grill,” Harbison said. “He expects a certain level of performance out of players and he’s not afraid to let them know.”

Alofaituli has been blessed with a high football IQ, and at 15, has become the captain of the secondary.

Each week, he and Harbison break down game tape on their opponent and devise the defenses they want to run. Come kickoff, Alofaituli is responsible for calling specific coverages based on formation recognition.

His rapid development has kept Hunter Johnson off the field. Sierra expected the 6-foot-5 Johnson, an all-league punter and highly touted wide receiver, would start at free safety, but that assignment was seized by the 5-7, 186-pound Alofaituli.

“Seu came in and impressed over the summer,” Harbison said. “He’s earned that spot. It’s not about attrition or saving Hunter; it’s about (Seu) earning the position.”

Castillo is a pure athlete who can – and will – play a multitude of positions for the Timberwolves. During last week’s 37-7 victory at Lathrop, Castillo started at quarterback and scored on a 30-yard sprint, and later booted a 31-yard field.

He also has two interceptions, including a pick-six against Ripon in their season opener.  “(Castillo) is a dude,” Merzon said.

That much was clear to Harbison, who watched the three 15-year-olds dominate a freshman-sophomore scrimmage during Sierra’s bye week last fall.

Castillo cemented his place with a hero’s performance against Manteca’s freshman team. Hobbled by a leg injury, Castillo came off the bench and scored the game- and league-winning touchdown on a 62-yard run with less than three minutes left in the game.

He finished with 110 yards on just 10 carries as Sierra rallied for a 28-24 win.

On that run, Castillo shook two defenders on one leg.

“What Marcos did in the Manteca game, we knew he was a ball player and we had to take a look at him,” Harbison said.

“They had to prove themselves,” he later added. “If they weren’t going to start, they weren’t going to stay up.”

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