Joe Pirillo returns to familiar territory this Friday, but there will be a level of unfamiliarity for him and his Lathrop football team.
The seventh-year Spartans (2-2 Valley Oak League, 4-3 overall) are venturing into unchartered waters as they enter Manteca High’s Guss Schmiedt Field, where Pirillo once roamed as a Buffalo for coach Eric Reis. Only this time he’ll be on the opposite sideline of his mentor. And for the first time this late in a season, Lathrop, which is already in the midst of a groundbreaking campaign, is within reach of a postseason berth.
“I’m looking forward to it very much,” Pirillo said. “It’s definitely something I’m going to remember for a very long time.”
Pirillo was the starting center as a junior on Manteca’s 2002 team that advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III finals. It was Reis’ first year as head coach, and his first of four SJS final-round appearances.
Pirillo has already reunited with his old coaches in the last two years. This past summer, Lathrop was part of Manteca’s team camp that he helped run the year prior.
Pirillo isn’t the only one looking forward to this game. Last season, Manteca escaped Bennie Gatto Field with a 14-12 victory. Special teams mishaps, including a missed field goal late in the contest, kept the Spartans from their greatest achievement.
“I tell the boys that last year doesn’t mean anything,” Pirillo said. “The one thing they can take from last year is that they came so close to winning that game. Now they’re chomping at the bit. They want this one really bad. They’ve been talking about it since the summer — that’s the kids, not me. They had this one game circled on their calendar.”
He expects an angry Manteca team (3-1, 6-1) to be at its best after suffering its first loss of the season at the hands of Central Catholic, 28-6. Lathrop clobbered Battle of I-5 rival Weston Ranch 35-7 after back-to-back losses to undefeated Central Catholic and Oakdale.
Lathrop and Manteca are nearly mirror images of each other. Both possess hard-hitting defenses with speed, and their offenses are led by elusive quarterbacks — Diego Chavez for Lathrop and Dakarai Charles for Manteca — who are most dangerous while on the move.
“I think it’s going to be two defenses showcasing their ability, but what it’s going to come down to is who plays better at the quarterback position,” Pirillo said. “I like the way Diego (Chavez) has been playing lately. He’s doing a great job of taking care of the ball and we’ll need to do that again this week.”
A victory would vault Lathrop into contention for one of three automatic berths for the postseason, where it would likely compete in Division IV — a division down from VOL giants Central Catholic and Oakdale. The Spartans have the talent to make a deep run in Division IV, but they’ll have to take care of business starting Friday. Next week another playoff hopeful in Sierra awaits, and the Timberwolves are celebrating homecoming on the Oct. 30 date. The regular season ends with one-win Kimball.
Pirillo isn’t looking that far ahead.
“I would like to say that I’m thinking about the future but I’m really not,” he said. “This game to us right now means everything. We will be playing like it’s the last game of the year.”
Manteca is a virtual lock to make the postseason with six wins behind it. Lathrop isn’t the only area team still in the hunt, and the Trans-Valley League features what could end up being a championship showdown at Ripon High’s Stouffer Field.
Here’s a closer look at Friday’s other matchups:
Ripon head coach Chris Johnson warned against judging the nonleague records of his Indians and Modesto Christian before the TVL schedule kicked off. Lo and behold, Ripon (2-0, 4-3) and Modesto Christian (2-0, 3-4) remain as the only teams unbeaten in league. Their nonleague schedules have served them well so far, and the Crusaders of Salida are coming off a wild 48-47 overtime win over previously-undefeated Hughson. With just 21 players listed on its roster, MC makes up for its lack of depth with well-conditioned athletes who shine on both sides of the line of scrimmage. This contest may feature the TVL’s two most dynamic running backs in Modesto Christian’s Chris Brown (1,043 yards, 11 TDs) and Ripon’s Jacob Duxbury (507 yards, 5 TDs rushing; 324 yards, six TDs receiving).
Back to the VOL, Sierra (2-2, 4-3) is in the mix for a playoff berth but has to travel to Modesto’s Central Catholic (4-0, 7-0) on Friday. Central is sure to be motivated by last year’s 17-14 loss to the eventual co-champion Timberwolves, who graduated much of their talent. Reigning VOL Offensive Player of the Year Justin Rice trampled Manteca for 280 yards and three touchdowns last week, but the Raiders can keep defenses off balance with their stable of impressive skill athletes. A loss would not mark the end of the season for Sierra but would make its next two contests with Lathrop and Weston Ranch, both at home, must wins to qualify for the playoffs.
It has been a tough go through league thus far for much-improved East Union (0-4, 3-4), which many believed to be a contender for a postseason berth after its perfect 3-0 start. The Lancers are not mathematically out of it yet and can end their four-game skid at 1-6 Kimball on Friday. The Jaguars, however, battled Sierra tough in a 28-18 loss last week. It doesn’t get easier for EU, which has Central Catholic and Manteca next.
Weston Ranch (1-3, 4-3) can make the playoffs by winning two of its next three. On Friday it hosts Oakdale (4-0, 7-0), which wore down East Union with its punishing ground game led by Brad Aquino (150 yards, four touchdowns) in a 40-14 win last week. The Cougars’ final two games against Kimball and Sierra are on the road.
In the Southern League, Ripon Christian (2-2, 5-2) squares off with Denair (1-3, 2-5) in its final regular-season home game. The Knights are coming off a tough-to-swallow 24-21 loss to still-unbeaten Gustine. Their other defeat was a 49-43 shootout at Orestimba, which is also 7-0. Ripon Christian is likely out of the title race, but a winning out in convincing fashion could be enough to award it a first-round home game for the playoffs.