East Union lined up in victory formation on its own 5, down 35-21 in the final seconds of its intra-city duel at Sierra’s Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.
It was perhaps a fitting end to Friday’s cross-town clash.
Although Sierra was the true victor on its homecoming night, it was East Union doing the celebrating.
Soon after quarterback Jack Weaver kneeled it, East Union’s Red Sea cheering section came pouring down from the stands and flooded the visiting side of the field. Fans lined up from the 40-yard line to the end zone to form a tunnel for their valiant Lancers to run through. Weaver, one of 10 sophomores playing at the highest level of high school ball, was one of East Union’s many young heroes Friday.
“It’s a huge building block for our program to be able to compete with a 7-0 team that is probably one of the best in Northern California,” Weaver said. “To actually be able to play with them and give them a scare was great.”
Truth is the point differential was much, much closer than anyone — except for the Lancers themselves, of course — had expected. Sierra has slayed traditional giants Central Catholic and Oakdale, but against all others it previously faced the starters sat out the fourth quarters of blowout wins.
That wasn’t the case Friday.
East Union was well within reach trailing 28-14 with 9 minutes left in the third quarter and had chances to further cut into Sierra’s lead.
“I couldn’t be happier, even in a loss,” said Isaac Huffman, one of EU’s recent sophomore call-ups. “At East Union we have sort of a bad reputation. Sierra was supposed to beat us 70-0 but we held them and never gave up.”
If there was a symbolic meaning to the game’s final play, it went over East Union coach Willie Herrera’s head. The kneel-down was for more practical reasons.
“That was actually so we don’t get anybody hurt,” Herrera said.
He wasn’t joking.
Injuries have piled up for East Union this season, leaving it with just 22 healthy bodies at one point. Out for the season are key starters OLB/RB Dominic Honre (dislocated elbow), C/DT Adrian Rodriguez (knee) and TE Baily Simons (shoulder).
“The injury bug has been brutal to us this year,” Herrera said, adding that several others have missed up to two weeks with concussions and sprains.
That prompted Herrera to make a bold move following a 49-13 loss in the Lancers’ Valley Oak League opener against Oakdale.
“For as much as I believe that my boys are strong and in awesome shape, it would be a heck of a hard time for us to get through the VOL with 22 players for the rest of the year,” Herrera said. “That’s when I knew I had to make a decision, was that weekend after Oakdale.”
That decision was one he and his coaching staff never wanted to make. With already three sophomores on the varsity, Herrera called up seven more in the middle of the season to not only add depth but to fill starting spots.
It a was move that had a program-wide effect. By the time all the dominoes fell, East Union’s sophomore squad included all of the freshman team’s starters, and the freshman contingent was comprised of 27 players who had very little to no prior football experience.
Herrera even shook up the coaching staff. Head coach Dan Coffman started out as the freshman coach and now leads the sophomore group. Herrera took it upon himself to take over the freshman team.
“Those guys are taking a pounding, but we’re doing a good job of staying positive and taking it as a learning experience,” he said. “Those kids had never played before. Our goal is for guys to stay in the program all four years.”
Sure, Herrera has taken a glimpse at the bigger picture, but his main focus is on what’s in front of him.
Those 10 sophomores have already had a big impact at the varsity level. Together, they are 2-2 in the last four weeks, substantiating their success at the freshman level a year ago.
In 2013, the East Union freshman team finished 7-3 with competitive losses to VOL champion Sierra and Oakdale and a Week-10 statement win over Manteca. And that was with Weaver playing for the sophomore team.
“It’s super fun to be able to finally compete with them and start building that relationship,” Weaver said. “We had no problem accepting those guys in. We’re a brotherhood, for sure, all the way through the program from the freshmen to the seniors.”
Among those elevated to the varsity is Martin Garcia, who at 6-foot-2, 290 pounds is the biggest lineman on the team. Joseph Reynaga and Huffman join Angel Sena to form an all-sophomore starting core of linebackers. Tight end Fernando Rodriguez started the year on the varsity but is currently out with an injury. Tight end/outside linebacker Daniel Reed, RB/DB Isaiah Cormier and linemen Ceasar Vacca and Andy Parcells are others who have made the big jump.
Herrera didn’t just assess their abilities on the field, but how they behave outside of it. Weaver, Huffman, Parcells and Reynaga all boast GPAs of 4.0 or better.
With the sophomores in place, East Union toppled Kimball 41-26 but was brought back down to earth in a 52-0 loss at Central Catholic. Last week, the Lancers upset Lathrop, 28-21.
“The Central Catholic game was our real first eye-opener,” Huffman said. “It showed us how good a team can be and what type of teams we’re going to face in the future.
“By the Lathrop game we knew what we could do. It was seamless. It was as if the sophomores that came up were seniors.”
They have yet give Herrera a reason to second-guess the decision. We may just see another victory formation out of this team before the season’s done.
“They introduced themselves to the top dogs and gave them their best shots,” Herrera said. “Instead of backing down and saying, ‘Just wait until next year,’ they’re saying, ‘Our time has come.’”