The receivers and defensive backs jogged off the practice field for a water break on this torturous Tuesday afternoon.
It would have been understandable for them to head straight for the water station in the draining 105-degree heat, but they instead stopped to encourage the linemen as they drudged to the end of their tackling drill.
Defensive coordinator Mike James signaled the end of the exercise, and the two groups — eventually joined by the linebackers and running backs — formed a united pack as the Timberwolves hydrated together.
The word 'family' was repeated in separate interviews from the Sierra camp, where positive reinforcement is more prevalent than friendly trash talk between teammates.
“If we weren't a family, we wouldn't be a team,” second-year junior Kimoni Stanley said. “Nobody plays for themselves. We protect each other and look out for each other. We all play as one.”
It has taken just two years for Chris Johnson to create this environment at Sierra. After a one-year break from coaching that followed a 12-year stint as head coach at Ripon, his alma mater, Johnson struggled to get the Timberwolves — just two years removed from their unexpected run to a state title — to play with discipline and cohesion.
An attitude adjustment was in order, as was an adjustment is schemes. Johnson installed a triple-option flexbone offense in the offseason, and it took half a season for things to finally click for the Timberwolves in 2018. No team from the area improved as much from opening kickoff to the end, as they ended up 5-6 following a near-upset of Western Athletic Conference tri-champion Pacheco, 34-33, in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs.
Whether it's the successes or failures that drive the individual athletes, they're trotting into their 2019 opener against visiting Modesto Christian as a family.
“It really has become a family atmosphere,” Johnson said. “The kids really support each other and keep things positive.”
There's reason for Sierra to have elevated expectations. Four of its five starting offensive linemen return, and unlike last season it is an area of strength and depth for the Timberwolves.
That's good news for Stanley, who had a superb sophomore season in which he accumulated 1,375 rushing yards (8.9 per carry) and 15 touchdowns and was named to the All-Valley Oak League first team.
“We're a lot more comfortable in this offense, and the offensive line is the biggest part of our team,” Stanley said. “They've worked hard over the summer knowing that it was an area we needed to improve.”
Also returning in the backfield are quarterback Shane Johnson and versatile slotback Matt Dunham, who was beset by an ankle injury last year. Converted receiver Nyco Mendoza fills in at the other slotback spot for the graduated Nick Stanley.
Sierra may look to pass more after making just 37 attempts all of last season. These days, it's common for teams to average that many throws per game.
“With Shane's progression and the ability of some of our guys to do different things, we'll be a little more diverse,” coach Johnson said. “We're going to continue to run the ball first — we're a true triple-option team. We built our system around our kids.”
The 4-3 defense boasts much experience as well, the problem is that most of them also start on offense and special teams. Shane Johnson, the head coach's nephew, will play free safety as Sierra looks to make use of his vision and smarts on both sides of scrimmage.
Stanley and Dunham are part of a formidable trio of linebackers that includes 6-foot, 200-pound Holden Fishburn, a CIF State Track & Field Championships qualifier in the shot put and discus. Fishburn made the all-league second team last year as a defensive end, and coach Johnson said he's “the fastest kid on the team.” He's plenty familiar with the position having played middle linebacker at the lower levels.
Sierra's depth at the line allows for Fishburn to make the move. Josh Valdez, a 6-3, 185-pound first-year senior, replaces Fishburn on the defensive line, with Joaquin Alvarez is back at the other end spot.
“The coaches said we were wasting my speed on the D-line and I completely agreed with them,” Fishburn said. “I can mix it up in there with the bigger guys and do well, but might as well utilize everyone to the best of their ability. With Matt and Kimoni being quick on their feet, we should be able to stuff up those gaps.”
Fishburn will still get his chances to tangle in the trenches as one of those returning offensive linemen. Senior Omar Maxwell is a space eater on both sides of scrimmage at 6-1, 280 pounds. Juniors David Cumberworth and Ayden Horn gives the T'wolves additional size.
There is belief that if the two-way standouts remain healthy Sierra has the goods to return to the postseason and contend. The Timberwolves, though, are more focused on winning the opening kickoff.
“Our thing is to don't look too far ahead, just be 1-0,” Johnson said. “We strive to be the best versions of ourselves. We obviously feel pretty good about being further ahead than we were at this point last year, but right now let's just worry about Modesto Christian. Everything else is so far out we're not even talking about.”