Enrique Jasso was as enthusiastic as ever during a rare mid-day practice at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium on Wednesday.
The senior linebacker and the rest of the Timbewolves have much to be thankful for. That’s because for just the second time in program history Sierra is practicing the week of Thanksgiving, only this time it’s in preparation for the team’s first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship-round appearance.
On Saturday, the third-seeded T’wolves (7-5) tangle with red-hot Liberty Ranch (8-4) for the Division IV crown at Elk Grove High. Liberty Ranch is also playing for its first section banner for football.
There is even more at stake for the two teams that many expected to not make it to this point. The winner gets to compete in the CIF Northern California Regional Bowl series.
“We’re still going,” Jasso said. “We’re the only team in town to still playing football and it’s a great feeling. The guys are excited about it, the whole school is excited.”
Sierra is one of three Valley Oak League teams still standing, as unbeaten Central Catholic and Oakdale are in the semifinals of the daunting Division III bracket. The Timberwolves finished fifth in the VOL with a 3-4 record, but the school’s enrollment allowed them to drop to the more manageable Division IV. There was talk of Sierra not deserving its No. 3 seed, even in Division IV, and it has been used as a rallying point for its postseason run.
“It shows how strong of a league the Valley Oak League is,” Sierra coach Jeff Harbison said. “It also shows how the Sac-Joaquin Section got it right. We got in with our opponents’ wins and strength of schedule and it helped get us the three seed. They got it right.”
While Liberty Ranch is riding an eight-game winning streak following an 0-4 start, the Timberwolves also have reason to believe they are peaking at the right time. They’ve won three in a row and are as close to full strength as they’ve been with injuries to key starters dwindling the depth chart for much of the season.
“Things are coming along,” Harbison said. “We are finally healthy; we are down to just having two players out and I say that with a chuckle because it’s been a long season when it comes to injuries.”
The Timberwolves believe they have yet to have played their best game this season. They’re coming off an impressive 34-20 win at No. 2 Calaveras, but the margin of victory was probably closer than it should have been.
Sierra had an opportunity to go into halftime ahead 14-0 but allowed a short pass to J.J. Gonzalez to go for a 90-yard touchdown play. The defense was stout for the most part — Calaveras standout Noah Preuss was limited to 56 yards on 22 rushes — but gave up 211 yards on scoring plays. Take away Calaveras’ three touchdowns and it had just 165 yards of offense.
Sierra also had a chance to extend its lead in the third quarter but fumbled on the Calaveras 11. To their credit, the Timberwolves had an answer for every blow landed by the Redskins, including an 82-yard kickoff return from Daniel Wyatt after the host team had just tied it at 14-14.
“Killer instinct,” Jasso said. “When we’re up 14 don’t let up and let them come back and tie it up. We need to put a team away, take advantage of our opportunities.
“Knowing that we haven’t played a full four quarters to our full potential,” Jasso added, “that’s kind of scary. We’ve been winning these games, but if we put four quarters of Sierra football together it could be great.”
Sierra will have to be on its game to slow down the fourth-seeded Hawks, who eclipsed the 40-point barrier in each of their two playoff wins and averaged 35 points on their win streak. It’s a complete 180-degree turnaround from the start of the season, and much of it has to do with the change in offense from the pistol formation to the wing-T.
“They’re doing things right,” Harbison said. “They have four running backs who are over 600 yards, they have a quarterback who can throw the ball and can run with it as well. They’re a really solid team.”
They share common opponents in Lathrop and Union Mine. Liberty Ranch started the season with a 20-14 loss to Lathrop but toppled Union Mine en route to running the table in the Sierra Valley Conference. The Timberwolves dropped a 37-35 decision to Lathrop and held off Union Mine 24-21 in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Sierra offense has also kicked into gear late in the season. First-year offensive play caller Ryan Teicheira and junior quarterback Mark Vicente are more comfortable with the spread attack, and what was once an inexperienced offensive line — 6-foot-6, 345-pound tackle Josh Fala was its only returner from last year’s VOL co-championship squad — has gotten stronger.
Vicente (2,069 yards, 16 touchdowns) has developed a rapport with Wyatt (839 yards, five touchdowns), but Jimmy Galindo (589, seven) and Tim Brown (314, two) are other reliable options through the air.
Now, Teicheira said, it’s a matter of competing and executing at a high level on every snap. He added that the speed and playmaking ability of Liberty Ranch’s defense are cause for concern.
“We’ve been trying to preach to them to execute every play,” he said. “In my opinion if we execute I think that we’re a team that’s unstoppable, but that’s the thing is we have to execute on every play.”
Running back Mark Paule’s numbers are down from his outstanding junior campaign, but he remains a threat for Sierra. He had a big second half at Calaveras, scoring on a 65-yard play and finishing with 121 yards on 13 carries to go with three receptions for 31 yards. Paule has also been playing on the defensive end as free safety, which he hadn’t done for all of last season and for most of 2015.
“We’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season and we’re finally putting things together,” Paule said after the Calaveras win.
Sierra, though, is not satisfied to reach its milestone after what had been an up-and-down regular season.
“It’s not time to look back on the past, we have to look toward the future,” Harbison said. “We have to look toward the next play and that is our goal: win the next play. They’re doing a pretty good job of that.”