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Unbeaten Sierra in line for VOL title after lassoing Mustangs

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Linemen Joseph Valenzuela (79) and Zak Derossett (79) begin to celebrate Sierra’s 31-20 victory over Oakdale Friday night at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin /

POSTED October 18, 2014 1:02 a.m.

Jeff Harbison put his full trust in his players.

Mark Paule Jr. trusted his blockers.

And quarterback Devin Nunez trusted his receiver on the insurance touchdown that punctuated Sierra’s 31-20 benchmark win over Oakdale in Friday’s duel of Valley Oak League unbeatens at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.

That trust — and an audacious fourth-and-1 decision — may have been what ultimately won the game for the now 7-0 Timberwolves, who beat Oakdale for just the second time in 19 years.

Clinging to a 24-20 lead, Sierra lined up in punt formation on fourth and 1 from its 27-yard line. Harbison called timeout with 4:00 to go.

“We called their character into check,” Harbison said. “We challenged them. We challenged our boys and they came out on top.”

Sierra went to its jumbo package with running back Paule Jr. standing shotgun behind center. He lowered the pads and bulled his way to a 3-yard gain and a pivotal first down.

Paule ended up with 216 yards on 28 attempts and now has a Sac-Joaquin Section-leading 27 touchdowns on the season. He had another huge fourth-down run in the second quarter, taking it 43 yards to the house for a 21-0 Sierra lead with 6:03 left in the first half.

“We had to go for it, leave it out on the field,” Paule Jr. said of the gutsy fourth-down play. “I gotta give it to our line, they blocked hard. I gave all my trust to my line. I respect those guys and trusted them to open up the holes.”

Paule Jr. scampered for 135 yards and three touchdowns in the first half but was bottled up for much of the final two quarters. It turned out he had one big gain left in those legs.

Just two plays after his fourth-down conversion, he set up Sierra’s final score with a 66-yard jolt to the Oakdale 3. Sierra converted on 4 of 5 fourth downs total, and each successful conversion led to touchdowns.

“Our receivers had some big blocks down field to give me the time and running space,” Paule Jr. said.

On third and goal from the 6, Nunez was called upon to ice the win for Sierra. It was a designed rollout with three receivers split out to the right. Nunez scrambled with his eyes set in that direction, but in one quick motion he squared up and zipped a dart to Daniel Wyatt (six receptions, 43 yards) in the middle of the end zone. Marissa LaQuaglia nailed her fourth PAT of the night to make it 31-20.

“Daniel had told me that back side was going to be open and I just trusted my receiver,” Nunez said. “He told me all game it was open so I put all my confidence in my teammate.”

With Paule Jr. neutralized for most of the second half, Nunez helped keep Sierra rolling with his legs. He ran for 51 yards on 18 carries and completed 13 of 21 passes — none bigger than touchdown toss to Wyatt.

“Clutch,” Harbison said. “It was the fourth read, the drag (route) by the ‘X’ receiver.  “(Nunez) showed a lot of composure and poise there and he got it done.”

Oakdale did well to get back into the game after spotting Sierra the early 21-0 advantage. The Timberwolves held Oakdale without a first down until Brock Whiting busted a 40-yard run on a sweep with about 5 minutes remaining in the first half. Fullback Frankie Trent — who spearheaded the Mustangs with 122 yards and two touchdowns on 17 rushes — rambled 30 yards on the next play just before scoring from 4 yards out.

Then, after Oakdale’s defense held for a three-and-out series, the Mustang faithful erupted as Darus Nelson closed the visitors in 21-14 with an electric 84-yard touchdown on the punt return. Sierra went into halftime with the lead, but Oakdale had the momentum despite being outgained 216-98 in offensive yards with three first downs against the Timberwolves’ 10 in the opening half.

By game’s end, Sierra amassed 362 yards while holding Oakdale to 203. Oakdale quarterback Adam Olsen was limited to 1-of-7 passing with 5 yards and 19 rushing.

 “I thought our kids played unbelievably hard tonight, we just didn’t play real well,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “To beat a team like that you have to play hard and well. Playing hard doesn’t win you championships in the Valley Oak League.

“I thought our kids were tough tonight, I thought our kids were resilient. We just made some mistakes and didn’t execute at times when we’d normally execute. A lot of it had to do with the team in blue.”

A lot of it had to do especially with Sierra’s defense.

Oakdale, trailing 24-20, had a chance to take its first lead after Tyler Flores picked off a pass and returned it to the Sierra 5 just before the end of the third quarter. The Mustangs couldn’t cash in and settled for a 35-yard field attempt that missed wide.

On their next drive, the Mustangs were again able to penetrate the red zone but turned it over on downs with 5:52 left.

“Anytime a defense can hold Oakdale to 14 offensive points you know they played well,” Harbison said. “They played their hearts out. I think they made a statement tonight.”

Harbison had one final statement for his jubilant players: “We’re not done yet, fellas.”

“We talked about the season being a ladder, each game being a rung on the ladder,” he later said to the media. “We’re climbing that ladder to where we want to be and this was just one rung.”

The three rungs remaining are rival schools, starting with East Union back at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium next Friday. Then comes the Timberwolves’ final great challenge at Manteca on Halloween night and the regular-season finale at Weston Ranch.

But with Friday’s important win Sierra has its second VOL title within reach, only this time it aims to keep it all to itself after sharing the first one with Oakdale in 2009.

“This is one step on the ladder,” linebacker Enrique Jasso said. “If we don’t take the next one we’ll fall.”

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