When Greg Leland was the head coach of the Sierra High School football program just making the playoffs would have fulfilled a dream.
At the time that he founded Manteca’s newest high school’s program in the mid-1990s, the Valley Oak League was rife with dominant teams like Oakdale, Sonora, West, Tracy and Los Banos.
And only two teams out of the league of eight would be represented after Week 10.
On Saturday he joyously watched from the sidelines at Elk Grove High School’s Thunder Field as the program that he started eclipsed a milestone that was two decades in the making: bringing home a CIF Sac-Joaquin section championship banner.
While he was spotted the week before enthusiastically running up and down the sideline, Leland was much more reserved on Saturday night as the Timberwolves dismantled the Liberty Ranch Hawks 42-0, sporting an ear-to-ear grin as he watched head coach Jeff Harbison get bathed in two icy buckets of water. When Leland, now Sierra’s vice principal, was promoted to athletic director he hired Harbison as his replacement to lead the football program.
While some Manteca Unified schools were able to make the playoffs within a few years of their formation – including most recently Lathrop – it took Sierra more than a decade.
The VOL, which has significantly changed since Sierra High School opened, underwent a massive period of population growth that required one-town schools to split. Other towns saw their enrollment decline, and before long the recognizable landscape was no more.
And changes in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoff implementation system opened the door for teams overall records to be factored into tournament-style seeding instead of basing everything off of league finishes.
And those changes led to new scenarios.
This was the first year in the history of Manteca high school football that two schools within the same district could have won section banners at different levels.
Some people will say that these are technicalities, and that the old system was the best way of determining who the best teams actually were.
But don’t forget that Sierra High School was the Valley Oak League co-champion last season, and the things that the other, older schools within the league, the Oakdales and the Mantecas, claim as being their biggest asset – tradition – are starting to shine through brightly for “the blue school.”
On Saturday night there were to players on the field whose fathers went to Sierra High School – Scott Teicheira and Tim Brown – which shows that Sierra has grown up enough to be multi-generational.
Both of the players made tremendous plays to get Sierra its first section football banner. Assistant coaches Ryan Teicheira, Andrew Panigada and Justin Silva are former players. That shows that a legitimate program has been established where those that go through are willing to come back and dedicate themselves to something that they obviously love. Also celebrating the championship is athletic director Anthony Chapman, a former student-athlete and coach at Sierra.
The era of Jeff Harbison has been a great one, and a productive one. And he’s done something that no other school in Manteca history – other than the one bears its namesake – has done.
But I think that Leland – who coached Sierra to a 6-4 record both my junior and senior year, which would be good enough to make the playoffs in the current format – helped the plant the seed for what the school would grow to become.
There have only been two head football coaches in the more than 20 years that it has been open, and I think that both of them, on Saturday, had a reason to smile when that banner finally made its way onto the field in Elk Grove.
Leland represents the past, Harbison the current, and somebody else the future – but denying that the team arrived on a bitterly cold evening in southern Sacramento County does an injustice to the men who worked hard to get to where they currently find themselves.
Right now that is as CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV champions, and in two weeks they’ll be vying to for a spot in the California Interscholastic Federation State Bowl Game series.
Sierra, a state champion? Time will tell.
But the shockwaves that their Saturday win sent through the local football community announces one thing – they’ve reached the top of the mountain.
And nobody can ever take that away.