Sierra head coach Jeff Harbison will relish every second of what could be his last visit to Sonora High’s storied Dunlavy Field on Friday.
Going away with a victory would of course make it a more memorable trip.
He and the Timberwolves are gunning for the program’s first-ever varsity win at Dunlavy Field, where many of the Valley Oak League’s classic battles have been played in the last five decades.
One of the VOL’s original members since 1947, Sonora is moving to the Mother Lode League next year to cut transportation costs and compete with schools more comparable to its declining enrollment.
“I got to travel up there three times when I played in the 80s. It’s something to experience,” said Harbison, a Manteca High alumnus. “They’re a mainstay in the VOL. It’s unfortunate that they are leaving the league.”
Harbison made mention of Sonora’s place with Manteca and Oakdale as the VOL’s traditional “Big 3.” No longer the new kid on the block with Weston Ranch, Lathrop and Kimball joining the fold within the last 10 years, Sierra is now a presence in the upper echelon thanks to its recent success that includes a share of its first VOL title in 2009 and four playoff berths in the last five years.
Sierra and Sonora have split their last six meetings, alternating wins with losses with the host team doing the winning. Their previous engagement at Dunlavy Field ended in heartbreak for the Timberwolves, who led after three quarters but gave up 16 unanswered points in a 51-37 defeat that kept them from advancing to the postseason.
That was with their best player, Anthony Cota, out with an arm injury. With a healthy Cota, Sierra held off the Wildcats 47-42 at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium last year, and he shattered Sierra’s single-game rushing record with 333 yards.
So what makes winning at Dunlavy Field so tough?
The hour-and-30-minute bus ride to the Mother Lode Country doesn’t help. There’s also the unique seating arrangement in which visiting fans sit on the same side as the Sonora faithful, leaving the area behind the opposing sideline eerily silent.
To Harbison, there is much more to it.
“There’s just something about that place,” he said. “It’s tradition. They have been playing there for close to 100 years.”
And let’s give due credit: Sonora has been very good. Still is if you ask Harbison, who puts little stock in the Wildcats’ 0-4 record. Their nonleague losses were competitive against top teams — Turlock, Paradise and Calaveras — but they were blasted by Manteca 49-21 last week.
Sonora is already in danger of missing out on a Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth. A loss Friday and the Wildcats would have to win out to give themselves a shot.
“There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal,” Harbison said. “They want to keep their playoff hopes alive and they know they have to beat us to do that.”
It’s a new school-old school matchup that pits Sierra’s potent spread offense and Sonora’s physical triple option.
Sonora had success in moving the chains against Manteca, racking up 277 yards with Kade Barajas (12 rushes, 105 yards) and the speedy Ryan Puou (124 yards, 2 TDs) doing most of the damage.
Sierra has done well in defending the run this season, with linebacker Trevon McCray, safety Garrett DeVillanueva supporting a stout defensive line.
“I think it’s going to be a battle,” said Harbison, whose defense locked down Kimball 44-7 last Friday. The Timberwolves have struggled against the pass, which was the case in a wild 61-58 shootout win over Chavez in Week 2, but Harbison believes that area has been shored up.
“Sonora runs a very complicated offense,” he added. “Our defense has to play their game, know their keys and know their assignments.”
He has had little to complain about with the offense. Jake Pruitt (1,059 yards, 12 TDs, 1 INT) has been on fire while his receivers have taken turns basking in the limelight. Meanwhile, Reid Maestas (423 yards, 6 TDs) has quietly emerged as Sierra’s featured back and of the area’s most productive.
“They are firing on all cylinders,” Harbison said. “Unlike in previous years, there is not one player we have that the defense can focus on. (In previous years) if you focused on Cota and stopped him you were probably going to win. Now, everyone is contributing.”