LOS BANOS — Sierra proved to be better than it was the first time it faced Pacheco more than two months ago.
The junior-heavy Timberwolves vow to be even better next year.
Their surprising 2018 run came to an enthralling yet heart-aching end Friday in the opening round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs, as eighth-seeded Pacheco held on to notch its first-ever postseason victory 34-33 at Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Panthers will take on No. 1 Rio Linda in the quarterfinal round next week.
As evidenced by the score, the gap between the two teams closed considerably since their Aug. 31 showdown won much more decisively by the Panthers, 36-14. Pacheco (9-2) went on to earn a piece of its first championship in the Western Athletic Conference, while the No. 9 Timberwolves (5-6) continued to take their lumps in the Valley Oak League.
“We’re not the same football team that we were then — that seems so long ago,” second-year Sierra coach Chris Johnson said. He and the T’wolves won just two games last season. “I think you’ve seen a team that had grown up a lot over the course of the season.”
Sierra’s season can be summed up in this one game — some ups, some downs and a whole lot of guts. In the end, it came down to a gutty decision by Johnson and the Timberwolves to go for two with 1:20 remaining.
Nyco Mendoza leaped over two defenders in the back of the end zone to tally the final points on a 21-yard pass delivered by running back Matt Dunham (11 rushes, 60 yards). Sierra then put it in the hands of sophomore running back Kimoni Stanley on the conversion try, but he took the direct snap and was stuffed at the 2-yard line.
“I’d do it a hundred times out of a hundred, not even a question,” Johnson said. “We were on the road, we’ve got 19-20 juniors starting — we’re going for the win. I’ll lay awake thinking I probably should have called a different play, but you know what? We gave Kimoni Stanley the ball with a chance to win it.”
Stanley, despite his youth, has definitely earned the trust from his coaches and teammates. He finished with 163 yards and two touchdowns on 14 rushes despite sitting the entire first quarter for missing practice this week because of an illness. His scoring scampers spanned 71 and 50 yards, the latter of which was the result of a Statue of Liberty play.
And it was Stanley who injected some hope for Sierra as Pacheco thoroughly dominated the second half. The Panthers came back from a 21-7 halftime deficit, forced two turnovers and rallied for 27 unanswered points. Sierra ran just three offensive plays from scrimmage in the third quarter.
“They came out hitting in the second half,” Sierra senior linebacker Elijah White said. “We tried fighting back but they had us on our heels.”
Julian Moran (20 rushes, 101 yards; 22-yard TD catch) registered the last of his four touchdowns for Pacheco on a 5-yard run with 4:59 left, giving his team a 34-21 lead.
Stanley answered with an 85-yard dash to the end zone on the ensuing kickoff. Leland Evans then recovered Jordan Shinn’s onside kick, and just like that momentum suddenly belonged to the Timberwolves.
Sierra ran six running plays and converted two first downs before Dunham connected with Mendoza on third-and-7.
“I felt like we had to prove to ourselves that we could do it,” Dunham said. “Tonight, my boys and I came out as a family to try and win this game. This other team put up a good fight — they’re worthy of this game and I think my team is too.
“We put our butts on the line for this game, we just didn’t come out on top.”
The drama didn’t end with Pacheco’s defense of the two-point conversion.
Sierra attempted onside kicks three times but was flagged for illegal procedure on each try. On the third, Shinn booted a perfect pooch kick toward the Sierra sideline that the speedy Nick Stanley caught in the air with open field ahead of him. Finally, after all that along with timeouts from each team, Jerry Winters (four catches, 59 yards) recovered Shinn’s deep kick inside the 5, and quarterback Marcus Ordunez (9 of 17, 133 yards; 16 rushes, 84 yards) kneeled it twice to clinch Pacheco’s historic win.
“Special teams is a third of the game and it was huge tonight,” Johnson said.
Pacheco recovered two onside kicks Friday, including on the opening kickoff. Pacheco also missed two PATs (one was blocked), and the Timberwolves was off target on one.
Ordunez helped key Pacheco’s second-half comeback. The Panthers started the third quarter with a 14-play, 79-yard scoring drive capped by Dominic Gomez’s 10-yard run that was set up by Ordunez’s first-down scramble on fourth-and-15. Three plays before that, Dunham nearly came up with his second interception of the game but could not hold onto the ball after making a circus catch in the air and landing hard onto the turf.
“I kept telling them it only takes one play and you see how fast momentum swings when you just don’t give up,” Johnson said. “If you go back and look at this game, there are probably four or five plays that the game turned on.”
Johnson later added that games like these are what help build programs. For the outgoing seniors such as White, the Timberwolves have gained much more.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t go to any other team. This is my family right here.”
Sierra 0 21 0 12—33
Pacheco 7 0 21 6—34
P—Julian Moran 4 run (Agustin Lino kick), 4:00.
S—Saul Contreras 6 run (Jordan Shinn kick), 8:34.
S—Kimoni Stanley 71 run (Shinn kick), 6:33.
S—Stanley 50 run (Shinn kick), 0:50.9.
P—Dominic Gomez 10 run (Lino kick), 8:15.
P—Moran 7 run (kick blocked), 6:31.
P—Moran 22 pass from Marcus Ordunez (Jerry Winters run), 1:47.
P—Moran 5 run (kick missed), 4:59.
S—Stanley 85 kickoff return (kick missed), 4:45.
S—Nyco Mendoza 21 pass from Matt Dunham (run failed), 1:20.