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Fridays game a must-win for 1-3 Sierra
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• WHAT: East Union vs. Sierra
• WHEN: Friday
• WHERE: Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium
• KICKOFF: 7:15 p.m.

Other Week 5 games

• Weston Ranch at Manteca
• Lathrop at Sonora
• Mariposa at Ripon Christian

Mike James isn’t buying the hype. Jeff Harbison is.

James and his 4-0 East Union High Lancers will travel across town to face rival Sierra this Friday for a meaningful Valley Oak League contest.

To James, the 2009 VOL co-champion Timberwolves, who are fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive, are not as bad as their 1-3 record indicates. All of Sierra’s losses have come against quality teams — Enochs of Modesto, Granada of Livermore and Oakdale, the co-owner of last year’s conference title — and the defense gave up an average of 41.3 points in those defeats.

“They’re well-coached and they’re the defending champs of the VOL — they know what it takes,” James said. “They have been where we wanted to be headed. Watching them on film, they’re one of the best 1-3 teams I’ve seen.

“Defensively, they’ve had to face the Atkinsons (George and Josh of Granada), Enochs and Oakdale. They’re saying their defense can’t stop people, but look at who they were trying to stop. They may not be as big as they were last year, but they’re still pretty impressive and explosive.”

Sierra’s head coach thinks the Lancers may be better than some are giving them credit for. East Union’s schedule leading up to Friday’s game is softer than Sierra’s by comparison. Its non-league opponents — Beyer, Bear Creek, Ceres — are a combined 2-10, and last week’s 31-0 shutout came against second-year varsity Lathrop.

But the Lancers have improved in the last month and are more confident now than they have been going into the Sierra game in years past. East Union last beat the Timberwolves in 2003, 42-21, but has lost nine of their last 10 meetings.

Sierra leads the all-time series, 10-5.

“They’ve got some girth on that offensive line, defensive line and at linebacker, and (quarterback) Teejay Gordon is a very solid player for them,” Harbison said. “They’re 4-0 for a reason — they’re playing good football.”

East Union now runs a spread offense similar to Sierra’s, taking advantage of Gordon’s abilities and the talent that surrounds him.

Adrian Valencia runs Sierra’s offense, and sophomore running back Anthony Cota has proven to be as effective in the passing game.

“It’s like looking in the mirror,” James said. “They run some of the same plays that we do. You can draw up any play you want, but who is performing those plays better is the key. Sierra really knows how to get the ball to their athletes.”

In terms of postseason implications, Friday’s game is a must-win for Sierra, which still has title favorites Manteca and Sonora left on the schedule. Under the new Sac-Joaquin Section playoff format, a 6-4 record is the benchmark that bubble teams are aiming for to qualify.

“It’s crunch time,” Harbison said. “If we want to get into the playoffs we’ve got to get five wins, and this is one of those games that we need. I hope for the rest of the season the players play with that chip on their shoulders. We have a lot of nice guys on our team, and we need a little aggression and a little nastiness.”