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Sierra faces tough task of matching 2009 success
Aug. 27: vs. Enochs
Sept. 2: at G. Davis
Sept. 10: vs. Granada
Sept. 24: vs. Oakdale
Oct. 1: vs. E. Union
Oct. 8: at Manteca
Oct. 15: vs. Kimball
Oct. 22: vs. Sonora
Oct. 29: at Lathrop
Nov. 5: at W. Ranch
The pressure of getting that first Valley Oak League championship in school history is finally lifted after sharing the title with Oakdale in 2009 — Sierra’s 15th varsity season.

“People are no longer saying that ‘Sierra could’ or ‘Sierra should.’ Now people are saying, ‘Sierra has,’” said sixth-year head coach Jeff Harbison.

Then again, the pressure is very much on.

“It feels like we’re required to play well now,” said OL/LB Nick Baker. “We’re going to try and do even better this year.”

Expectations are at an all-time high now that the championship patch is stitched onto the football banner in the school’s main gym.

In 2008, Sierra qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs for the first time and won its first-ever postseason game. The Timberwolves took it a few steps further last year with the championship, two playoff wins and a program-best 11-2 record.

Their season ended in Fair Oaks, where they lost to eventual SJS Division III champion Del Campo,

“It was heartbreaking,” Baker said. “They beat us pretty good, and the (difference in) size was pretty dramatic. Now we know what we’re up against. We know we have to get bigger and better.”

There are few holdovers from last year’s team that is joined by a junior class that earned the VOL’s co-championship at the sophomore level, but so far there are more questions than answers left by the team’s graduated stars.

Record-breaking running back Jarrod Daniels — who rushed for 1,813 yards and 33 touchdowns and was named the VOL’s Most Valuable Player — was the face of Sierra’s historic season.

Then there’s Anthony Hall, whose clutch playmaking ability at wide out, defensive back and placekicker was showcased in Sierra’s memorable 44-42 road win at Oakdale — which hadn’t lost a VOL home game since 2000.

The graduation hits keep on coming: QB Jonathan Davis; all-league left tackle Alex Trujillo; burly linebackers Cody Dias, John Perez and T.J. Sataua; and strong safety Moses Cordova. All were selected to the Bulletin’s All-Area team last fall.

Hard-hitting safety Stephen Thayer and nose guard Alex Nuanez, who himself made school history last year by becoming Sierra’s first state qualifier in wrestling, are the only returning starters on a defensive unit that scored two shutouts while allowing 15.2 points per regular-season game.

“We had a few juniors last year come in and step up when needed them to, so we’ll see how it goes,” Thayer said. “We lost a lot of size on the line, but we still have a lot of speed on defense.”

One of the big surprises in camp was Baker. His spot on the offensive line was solidified after a solid 2009 season, and he will fill in for Trujillo at left tackle. But Sierra’s coaches discovered that he can be a difference-maker at linebacker, too. At 6 feet, 2 inches and 217 pounds, he replaces some of the size lost by last year’s terrific trio of backers.

Adam Bennett (6-1, 220) and Jose Cortez (5-9, 183) will return with Baker on the offensive line — a smallish group that makes up for it with smarts and quickness.

Sierra also has an experienced stable of receivers with seniors Grant Widmer (6-3, 180), Ruben Lopez and Thomas Contreras-Holmes back.

The rest of the starting spots were left unsettled going into the second week of official practices.

“The players know that every position is up for grabs,” Harbison said. “No one is guaranteed a starting spot like last year, so they’re working hard for it.”

It might be a season-long battle for the starting spots at the most important positions of Sierra’s spread offense.

Based on varsity experience, senior Adrian Valencia figures to have a leg up on junior Anthony Perea in the competition at quarterback.

Valencia took his big chance to start a postseason game and shined in a quarterfinal shootout with visiting Benicia. Sierra squeaked out a 40-39 thriller in which Valencia rushed 20 times for 222 yards and a touchdown.

The other duel is at running back.

Aaron Manuta rushed for nearly 10 yards a pop as a back-up last year, finishing with 364 yards and four scores on 37 carries. Underclassman Anthony Cota, a 6-foot, 187-pound bruiser, will compete for carries after helping Manteca’s freshman squad finish 9-1 in 2009.

Sierra expects to be well tested before league. Enochs and Davis finished 2 and 3 in the Modesto Metro Conference last year to qualify for the Division I playoffs, and Granada of Livermore, led by explosive George Atkinson III, competes in one of Northern California’s best conferences in the East Bay Athletic League.

Sierra has a bye before opening league with Oakdale in an anticipated showdown between the co-champs.

 “We’re playing two playoff teams and another that would be in the playoffs if they were in any other league,” Harbison said. “We’ll find out right away what our team is made of.”