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EU 3-0? Coach James focused more on improving
East Union quarterback TeeJay Gordon and head coach Mike James will face their toughest non-league opponent in Ceres High Friday at Dino Cunial Field. - photo by Bulletin file photo


• WHAT: East Union (2-0) vs. Ceres (1-2)
• WHEN: Friday
• WHERE: Dino Cunial Field
• KICKOFF: 7:30 p.m.

There is a lot riding on East Union High’s final non-league contest Friday against Ceres, but head coach Mike James feels no need to place additional emphasis on this one.

The Lancers (2-0) host their home opener at Dino Cunial Field against a former Valley Oak League rival, and what better way to celebrate than to go 3-0 for the first time since 1993?

James wouldn’t mind a loss as long as the team continues to improve. Either way, the team goes into the VOL season with a winning record and in position to qualify for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs, which would end 18-year drought should it happen.

“Going into the Ceres game this year has a little bit of a different twist,” James said. “It isn’t a league game, number one.  It seems like the past few years we were both struggling for wins when we met — we knew what we had.  I don’t think we are there yet.  

“So it is still a game where we, as a coaching staff, are still looking for certain things. I feel that yes, we want to win, but our focus is not entirely on the win.”

Ceres split its four games with East Union in its short return to the VOL. Its current junior class won the league championship at the freshman level two years ago. The Bulldogs, along with neighboring Central Valley, are now in the Western Athletic Conference.

While wins have been hard to come by for both EU and Ceres (1-2) in recent years, they truly have had to earn theirs “W’s” so far in 2010.

On Aug. 27, Ceres needed some first-half breaks and a last-second, goal-line to beat Ripon 22-15 at home. The win was the Bulldogs’ first since beating EU on Nov. 7, 2008. It was also their first season-opening victory since 1997.

And they could be riding a three-game winning streak at this point.

The Bulldogs have since lost to small-school power Hilmar 21-20 after taking a 13-0 halftime lead, and to Downey 22-8 no thanks to two red-zone turnovers — and four total giveaways — that essentially nullified the team’s 308 yards of offense.

East Union is no stranger to crunchtime pressure, having won its two games — 29-28 over Beyer (0-3) and 16-13 over Bear Creek (0-2) — by less than four points. And like Ceres’ lone win, it took late defensive stops for the Lancers to get theirs. Ceres has played better competition, with each of its previous opponents holding 2-1 records.

“We have had two very close games so far this season,” James said. “The coaching staff feels that it is great to have that experience so early in the season.”

East Union hopes that experience translates into a more efficient effort from the offense, which has struggled to run the ball and had a tough time moving it downfield altogether in the second half of its game against Bear Creek. The talent is there for the Lancers to get the job done, but they are still adjusting to the newly-implemented spread offense.

“We are still installing our offense; every week we have added things,” James said. “We have improved each week since our scrimmage. You go into a game and you might think of running a balanced offense … Then as the game progresses you tend to take what he opponent is giving you, or what is working best for you.”

James would like to see the defense limit missed tackles this Friday, something they cannot afford against a powerful run offense.

Ceres’ linemen are as big as any, anchored by 2009 all-VOL second-team selection DaShawn Mena (6-foot2, 265 pounds), Shannon Dindale (6-6, 275), Jesse Hidahl (6-2, 240) and Jake Williams (6-2, 271). East Union is also fortunate to have some size and experience in the trenches this year, but this Ceres group will literally be their biggest test so far.

Fullback Zach Naylor leads the Ceres offense with 282 rushing yards at 6.6 a carry, but there are other weapons to look out for at the skill positions. The double tight-end attack features returning senior George Borden under center, but athletic second-year varsity junior Nick Welsh can come in at any moment to give defenses a different look.

Ceres’ top player does most of his work on the defensive side. Fourth-year starting linebacker Haydon Lopez already has 49 tackles — nearly half of the 100 he produced as a junior.

“The impressive thing about Ceres this year is how physical they play.  Their power running game is their strength, I feel,” James said. “Another thing that is very impressive with Ceres is their physical size; they will be the largest team up front we have faced yet this season.  We haven’t been the biggest team very often in my tenure but have grown accustomed to it. It isn’t something we shy away from.”