The head coaches of East Union and Sierra’s football teams aren’t downplaying the significance of their Week-5 contest.
Bragging rights aren’t the only thing at stake Friday at Dino Cunial Field, where East Union is celebrating homecoming.
“We have put ourselves into a situation where we need to win if we want to continue into the postseason,” said Sierra’s Jeff Harbison, whose Timberwolves are once again 1-3 through five weeks.
Last year, they went 1-2 in nonleague play and opened the Valley Oak League season with a loss to Oakdale following a bye week, but then they won five of their next six to sneak into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-III playoffs as the 15th seed.
That run started with a thrilling 30-28 win over East Union, which led until then back-up QB Anthony Perea threw a 5-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal with 34.7 seconds left.
The Lancers, also 1-3 after staving off Lathrop 38-28 for head coach Willie Herrera’s first career win, are looking to get even. But with tough games ahead in the VOL, they too can ill afford a loss this Friday. Herrera calls it “the most important game of the year,” but added that to be the case every week.
“We have an agenda this week,” Herrera said. “It may be our homecoming, but we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder because of what happened to us last year. Last year’s loss did not and is not sitting well with us.
“Our kids know that Sierra has had the upper-hand on us for some time now, and we are due to make some change. We are expecting to see a very well-coached, good and athletic Sierra football team that wants to win as well.”
Sierra leads the all-time rivalry series 11-5, winning seven straight and eight of the last nine.
The 17th installment, however, will not feature star running back Anthony Cota, who burned EU for 111 yards as a sophomore last year. In last Friday’s 45-14 loss, he broke a bone in a forearm that is now protected by a cast. Harbison said he will be out for six weeks.
Sierra appeared to be on its way to a possible upset when it led 14-10 after the first quarter, and Cota was a big reason for it. He had rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries before the injury.
In three-plus games, Cota accumulated 603 yards (7.4 per carry) and eight scores.
“Cota not playing makes us not treat this game any different,” Herrera said. “With or without him they are still a very dangerous team. They have multiple athletes that can change the outcome of the game.”
Herrera added that preparing for Sierra is more difficult with Cota out. With a healthy Cota, the defense knows where the ball is going on most plays. Without him, the Timberwolves are forced to spread the ball around, allowing for lesser-known players to emerge as game breakers.
Jayson Manuta takes over as the lead back. He has just 15 rushes for 35 yards and a TD, but the coaching staff has trust in the 5-foot-6, 150-pounder, who is more in the scat-back mold than the hard-charging Cota.
“Jayson is a shifty back, and we are confident in what he brings this week,” Harbison said.
Sierra will also look to Perea to carry the load. He is coming off his best effort of the season, rushing for 78 yards against Oakdale. He was also 15-of-23 passing with 162 yards and a TD but threw four interceptions.