The Mike Kuhnlenz Era is underway at East Union, and on Wednesday morning the Lancers held their first on-field practice of the summer.
“It was a little rough today,” Kuhnlenz said. “First day on the field, it’s to be expected.”
They’ve taken one small step toward their desired destination — the top of the Valley Oak League standings. When the team breaks out of huddles for water and at the end of practices, they shout the word “championship” in unison. East Union’s league title drought spans three decades, and the Lancers have qualified for the postseason just three times since last 18 years.
“We want to help build young men who are productive members of society, but we’re also playing a game and we’re playing to win,” Kuhnlenz said. “I don’t know one coach who doesn’t want to go out and compete for championships. It’s just a little reminder that hey, we’re here to win. We’re trying to create something a little different here and we’re excited about it.”
Kuhnlenz is a product of winning programs from his playing days. He was part of Manteca High’s 2005 Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship team and later won Golden Gate Conference and Graffiti Bowl titles with Modesto Junior College in 2008.
An East Union employee as a campus monitor the past five years, Kuhnlenz had actually coached against the Lancers for three-plus seasons while leading VOL rival Kimball of Tracy. In 2019, Kimball qualified for the SJS playoffs for the first time in school history while boasting one of the most exciting offenses in the region.
Kuhnlenz has begun installing the same spread offense at East Union, which returns senior quarterback Luke Weaver and an experienced core of skill-position players. The defense is also undergoing changes, which includes new terminology.
“It’s going to take some time,” he said. “They’re learning it and we’re expecting them to go fast on top of learning it. There will be some growing pains, for sure.”
Weaver is excited to continue learning the new system. His older brother Jack, a 2017 graduate, starred as East Union QB for three years and went on to direct MJC’s prolific spread attack.
“It’s going well so far and I’m enjoying it,” the younger Weaver said of the transition. “Our team is moving on and we’re ready for Coach Kuhnlenz. Right now we’re just taking it day by day and focusing on getting better.
“Watching my brother run (the spread) at MJC, it looked like a really interesting offense and something I’d like. I just gotta keep developing more under it.”
Weaver had a solid varsity debut during the recent abbreviated season in which the Lancers finished 2-2 for previous head coach Willie Herrera. The 6-foot-3 signal caller completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 681 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The starting job may appear to be the incumbent’s to lose, but under the new regime everyone gets a fresh start.
“I haven’t really looked at any of the film from last year,” Kuhnlenz said. “I haven’t really evaluated off that, I’m just going off what I see here. I’ve told all the guys there are no starters, everyone is competing for a spot. Everyone has a fair shake at it. Just seeing the guys in the weight room and out here running around, there’s talent. We’re excited to figure out where we’re going to put them.”
There are familiar names on Kuhnlenz’s coaching staff. Included are defensive coordinator Nick Ortiz and line coach Barry Keith, who were both with him at Kimball. Ortiz is also a Manteca High alumnus (2008), as is junior varsity coach Mike Barber (2007). Mike Serrato, a 2014 Tracy High grad, coaches the freshmen.
Hired just a month ago, Kuhnlenz has had little time in cobbling his staff together while acclimating his athletes into the new system and it won’t be long before the Lancers are tangling with other teams.
Next week, they’ll see Modesto for a 7-on-7 session. On Aug. 13, East Union heads to Downey for a full-contact scrimmage before the real thing starts Aug. 20 against 2019 state champion Ripon. The Lancers also have Windsor, McNair and Atwater in their non-league schedule.
Kuhnlenz is excited to tackle to new challenges ahead and is proud to do so now as a full-time Lancer.
“It’s a lot nicer finishing the work day and just walking right over here instead of taking a 30-minute drive,” he said. “I love this school. Obviously, I am a quote, end quote ‘green guy’ but I truly love this place. The people that work here, it truly is a family atmosphere and the kids are great all the way around.”