Jeff Harbison’s players have been a little too loose in practice for his liking.
Considering where Sierra’s football team is at in this point of the season, he’s letting it slide.
“We’re just happy to be here,” he said.
Sierra (9-5) is one of just 26 California teams still standing during the holiday season, and on Saturday the Timberwolves’ historic playoff run ends at Chowchilla (12-2) in the CIF State Division IV-A Championship Bowl Game. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. The team departs from campus at about 2:30. From there, the Timberwolves will be escorted to the freeway by the Manteca police and fire departments.
“We’ve been having the most fun since the beginning of the season,” Sierra running back/safety Mark Paule Jr. said. “We’re just taking in these very last moments together as seniors.”
Every day spent together is another chapter added to the history books. Three weeks ago, the Timberwolves trounced Liberty Ranch 42-0 in their first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section title game, and last Friday, Dec. 12 they staved off North Section powerhouse Sutter 17-13 in the program’s first CIF NorCal Bowl appearance. Sierra’s defense hasn’t given up a touchdown since its section semifinal at Calaveras.
They’re riding a five-game winning streak that began with a come-from-behind win over Weston Ranch in Week 10, when they trailed 27-13 at halftime before prevailing 34-27. The victory allowed Sierra to sneak into the SJS playoffs as the last of 72 qualifiers in Divisions I-VI. Sierra hasn’t trailed in a game since.
The Timberwolves have come a long ways since their 34-20 season-opening loss to eventual Trans-Valley League co-champion Ripon back on Aug. 28. They later suffered lopsided losses to Valley Oak League powerhouses Oakdale, Manteca and Central Catholic. Their postseason hopes were further dimmed by a 37-35 Week 9 loss to Lathrop, which was awarded the top seed in the SJS Division IV bracket. Sierra, the fifth-place team in the VOL, was seeded third.
Central Catholic is vying for a fourth straight state championship Saturday when it faces San Marino of the Southern Section in the Small School Open Division Bowl Game at Sacramento State.
“It’s been emotional just knowing where we came from during the regular season to where we are in the postseason,” Sierra middle linebacker Nashon Tamiano said.
Chowchilla has also made a surprising run to the state championship. The Redskins started 2014 with just 19 players, but that number swelled to 41 by kickoff of this season. Their first of two losses came in Week 3 against Reedley’s Immanuel, 17-8, which faces Mater Dei Catholic in the Division V-A Bowl Game.
Chowchilla was later upended by Washington Union of Fresno 30-12 in North Sequoia League play, a loss that was avenged by the fourth-seeded Redskins 20-16 in the Central Section Division IV finale. They have now won seven straight following their dominant 28-16 SoCal Bowl win over Fairfax, a Los Angeles school that doubles Chowchilla’s enrollment of about 1,000.
Rain is expected to hit Chowchilla on Saturday morning, which could be a factor for Sierra’s spread offense.
“We both have to play in it,” Harbison said. “I’m not going to make excuses beforehand. We both have to play in whatever Mother Nature brings our way.”
Wingin’ it: The Timberwolves are up against yet another wing-based offense, but this one differs to others they’ve already seen.
Chowchilla’s ground-and-pound double wing features an elusive runner in Anthony Stewart (1,700 yards, 21 touchdowns), the North Sequoia League MVP, a bruiser in fullback Alex Gutierrez (899-12) and a third threat in Danny Chavez (587-9). The Redskins don’t throw much — two quarterbacks have combined for just 63 pass attempts, 626 yards and nine TDs — but haven’t had to. Their 356 yards against Fairfax were all on the ground.
“They like to get everyone they can to the point of attack,” Harbison said. “They’ll pull their tight end and their guard on many plays and lead with the fullback. It’s different than the (single) wing, which is deception based. These guys just get after it.”
Sierra’s last two opponents run the Wing-T, as do Lodi and Oakdale. Cross-town foe East Union and Ripon also operate wing offenses with their quarterbacks standing in shotgun.
Enjoying the ride: Sierra hasn’t complained about its streak of road games in the last month. It started with the SJS semifinal in San Andreas, where the Timberwolves beat Calaveras. Then, as the higher seed, they travelled to Elk Grove to play Liberty Ranch, which had a much shorter ride from Galt. The NorCal Bowl Game took place at Yuba City’s River Valley.
With the Chowchilla trek added into the equation, Sierra will log about 567 round-trip miles for the postseason.
“It’s fun,” Tamiano said. “We don’t really complain about how long it takes to get there. We’re thankful to be this far in the season.”
Family ties: Turns out the Harbison family has ties to Chowchilla. Jeff’s sister, Shelly, used to live in the Madera County city, which has a population of about 19,000, with her husband and three children who all graduated from the high school there. Unfortunately, there will be no family reunion on Saturday.
“It would be cool for them if they could make it, unfortunately they’re now in North Dakota and my nephew’s in Fresno and has a business trip in Seattle for this weekend,” Harbison said. “None of them will be there.”
What’s in a name?: There are only four high schools in California that bares the Redskins mascot, and Chowchilla will be the second one Sierra sees in the postseason. The others are Calaveras, Gustine and Tulare.
In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 30, effective Jan. 1, 2017, barring the use of the mascot for the state’s public schools. Chowchilla has used the Redskins as its mascot for 80 years. Sierra is the last team that Calaveras has faced as the Redskins and plans to have a new moniker by next year.