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Expectations reaching new heights for East Union
East Union High head coach Mike James and the rest of the Lancers are fired up for their first 4-0 start since 1993, but they are hungry for more. - photo by HIME ROMERO
East Union thought it could win its season opener against Beyer at Modesto Junior College Sept. 3.

The Lancers did, 29-28, needing a dramatic four-down defensive stand on near their goal line.

In Week 2 they believed they could beat Bear Creek in Stockton and did, surviving a second-half charge to squeak out a 16-13 victory.

And backed by the “Red Sea” and the rest of the Lancer faithful, the team knew it could triumph over Ceres and did, 21-7, to complete its first 3-0 start since 1993.

Over three weeks time the attitude in Lancer land transformed from wanting to win, to the Little Engine that thought it could, to believing it could and knowing it could.

The next step is the expectation to win.

They walloped Lathrop 31-0 at Dino Cunial Field in a Valley Oak League opener last Friday, expecting nothing less than the one-sided outcome that came to pass. It was EU’s first shutout since goose-egging then-seniorless Central Valley 25-0 on Oct. 6, 2006.

East Union can solidify its role as a major player in the VOL this Friday with a victory at Sierra, the conference’s defending co-champion.

The re-emergence of winning football at East Union was planted by the players and coaches themselves, and the virus has spread out to the rest of the campus.

“When you win four straight games for a program that hasn’t had a lot of wins, that just changes the whole atmosphere,” said eighth-year head coach Mike James, a 1981 EU graduate. “The atmosphere in the school and in the stands has changed.

“We noticed after our first home game of the season that a lot of people were leaving the stands with dirty rear ends because no one had sat there since graduation. We had a good laugh about that, but it was nice to see it.”

There hadn’t been much for James and Co. to laugh about leading into 2010.

Since EU’s last winning season in 1999 (6-4), the team has gone 29-78-1. The Lancers didn’t even finish 5-5 once in that stretch.

But the heartache has gone well beyond the wins and losses.

The 2005 tragedy of junior Matthew Van Gelderen Zaragoza, who passed away a week after a football-related head injury put him in a coma, hurt James more than the 1-9 record of that season, or the unfair murmurs that his pennies-per-hour high school football coaching gig should go to someone else.

This 4-0 start is for Matthew and all others who have made every cent earned worthwhile.

“It’s still about the kids,” James said. “I think there is a part of me that wants to win for all the teams that didn’t win.”

Expectations have changed so much that a playoff berth, which would be the program’s first since 1992, isn’t enough for this year’s group.

The Lancers are two wins away from being in the running for an at-large berth, but a taste of this success is too much of a tease. If they’re at the dinner table, they might as well take their part in the three-course meal.

“We’re still not where we want to be or where we need to be,” James said. “When the kids sit down to eat they leave the plates empty and walk away hungry. We keep them wanting more.

“Who is really satisfied with four wins? We can talk about playoffs and being 6-4, but to be honest with you is that what we really want to do? I don’t think so.

“These kids want more, and we have to hold them back in certain situations. We haven’t had that problem in years.”

James if fully aware of the importance of Friday’s game. For a while, only bragging rights have been on the line for East Union, which hasn’t beaten the Timberwolves since 2003. And, of course, there are playoff implications for both teams.

But James himself isn’t placing extra hype or emphasis to a game that doesn’t need it.

“Our season doesn’t land on this game,” he said. “I’m not going to tell my guys that it’s now or never, but they say you eventually run out of tomorrows. Friday will be their today, that’s what it is right now and that’s how we’re approaching it.

“We want to beat Sierra, but we understand we have five more games after that to get to Week 11.”