LATHROP —East Union head coach Willie Herrera was in search of some leaders on the team at the start of the season.
Or as he put it: “Fire starters.”
In Friday’s Valley Oak League opener, senior Steven Gigli answered the call and figuratively set Spartan Stadium ablaze.
It was he who set the tone in each half, leading the Lancers to a 38-28 win on Lathrop High’s homecoming night.
The victory is East Union’s first of the season after dropping all three of its nonleague contests, and the first for Herrera in his head coaching career. Lathrop (0-1, 1-3), meanwhile, will have to wait for its first-ever VOL win.
“You see the smiles on these kids’ faces,” Herrera said. “It’s a weight lifted, and that first one feels good.”
Gigli had a monster night in all facets of the game.
On offense he had 14 rushes go for 56 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively, he intercepted two passes — the first of which was returned 38 yards for another score. And on special teams, he ran back the opening kickoff in the second half 93 yards to the Spartan 1 to set up his second TD run.
“We were just trying to come out with some intensity today,” Gigli said. “We knew it was going to be a tough matchup. Lathrop is a good team this year, so our goal was to come out firing.
“In all of our (previous) games we came out lackadaisical.”
His pick-6 broke the ice with 6:06 left.
That was the first of many momentum-shifting big plays on the night.
Lathrop answered just 25 seconds later with Christian Pena’s 5-yard touchdown run that followed Javaun Seldon-Young’s highlight-reel kickoff return spanning 85 yards.
Pena was the workhorse for Lathrop, racking up 83 yards and two TDs on 16 carries. He scored another midway through the third quarter to keep the Spartans in the game, rambling 93 yards down the left sideline on a kickoff return to close them in, 28-21.
Lathrop would get no closer than 3 points. After allowing a 27-yard field goal by Alex Dias early in the fourth, Pena’s 14-yard touchdown with 8:20 to go made it 31-28.
East Union looked to seal it on its next drive, getting strong runs from Mark Aguilar (9 rushes, 31 yards) and Gigli. The Lancers ended up on Lathrop’s 29 when controversy struck on third-and-9.
Sophomore QB Joe Menzel (13 of 26, 190 yards, TD, 2 interceptions) slung a pass to 6-foot-4 Kevin Bolding inside the 10, but Lathrop cornerback Sal Alvarez broke it up cleanly. Alvarez, however, was flagged with a pass-interference penalty.
East Union took advantage on the next play, a 14-yard scoring run from Tyler Hardesty with 5:01 remaining.
“If a couple of breaks went our way it might have been a different game,” Lathrop coach Jesse Rodriguez said. “That was a tough pass-interference call. Otherwise, that’s fourth down on our 30; we get the ball back down 3 with plenty of time on the clock.”
Lathrop’s defense forced three turnovers but also had four of its own. Lineman Ross Downum and Alvarez each picked off a pass for the Spartans, and Ernie Garcia forced a fumble recovered by Ricky Chavez with 3:43 left to give them a small glimmer of hope of mounting a comeback.
That was dashed when East Union nose guard Josh Byrd recovered his second fumble of the night.
“The defense didn’t play that bad,” Rodriguez said. “We gave up 38 points, but it wasn’t all on the defense.”
Herrera can live with the mistakes made by his Lancers, who did well to battle through them.
On top of the 11 penalties, there were the four dropped balls and a few off-the-mark passes that could have went for large gains and better numbers for Menzel.
Menzel did find his best receiver T.J. Williams for five receptions and 104 yards.
“The guys didn’t quit,” Herrera said. “I won’t allow them to quit, and they won’t allow each other to quit no matter what. Fumbles happen, dropped passes happen, missed tackles happen, but you just have to keep on playing.”