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PREVIEW: Fresh start for Sierra
Sierra football
Jax Ballard, from left, Anthony Grady and Joey Mendez key Sierra’s transition back to the spread offense under coach Jeff Harbison. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin


Friday, August 19 vs. Hughson

Friday, August 26 vs. Stagg

Friday, September 2 at Golden Valley

Friday, September 9 at Armijo

Friday, September 16 vs. Modesto

Friday, September 23 Bye Week

Friday, September 30 at Oakdale

Friday, October 7 at Manteca

Friday, October 14 vs. Kimball

Friday, October 21 vs. East Union

Friday, October 28 at Central Catholic 

Sierra is starting over again, but this time with its all-time winningest coach leading the way.

Jeff Harbison and many of his former assistants are back, and they’re tasked with resuscitating a program that went 1-9 at the varsity level last year while its JV team disbanded.

His predecessor, Chris Johnson, led the Timberwolves to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship in 2019 but struggled to keep numbers up during the height of the coronavirus pandemic the following two years. COVID-19 cases decimated the program last season, forcing Johnson to scrap the rest of the JV season.

Despite the tough assignment in front of him, Harbison is happy to return.

“I missed it the last six years,” Harbison said. “It’s nice to be back out there working with kids and building relationships. I look forward to seeing what these athletes produce.”

Harbison’s first go-round lasted 11 years (2005-16), going 88-49 while claiming two Valley Oak League titles (2009, 14), the 2015 SJS Division IV championship and 2015 Division IV-A state crown. He is reinstalling the spread offense that helped bring Sierra success, moving away from the run-based flexbone triple-option employed by Johnson.

Harbison has put together a veteran coaching staff, which includes the return of offensive coordinator Jeff Abrew and lines coach Les Wheeler. Mike James, previously head coach at cross-town rival East Union and the defensive coordinator under Johnson, now leads special teams.

“We’re still learning,” Harbison said. “We had such a limited summer. They have a lot to learn; it’s a challenge for the athletes learning a brand-new offense. But they’re taking to us pretty well and doing what we’re asking of them.”

Here’s a closer look at the 2022 Timberwolves:


Sierra football
- photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin
Standouts: Though the spread is known to be a pass-first system, the Timberwolves have a history of productive run games out of the single-back formation. That’s good news for Anthony Grady, who flashed his game-breaking potential last year as a sophomore.

He kept his team in striking distance in a non-league game at Stagg, rushing for 270 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. Sierra came up short, 49-35.

“He’s looking like the guy,” Harbison said.

Grady can’t wait to see how he is featured in the spread.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I had a good season last year, so I’m hoping I can do a little bit better than that.”

Paving the way is another second-year junior in Jax Ballard, a 6-foot-1, 280-pound road grader. Sierra has good size in the trenches but picking up the blocking scheme has been a challenge.

“It’s really different with the new game plan,” he said. “This year it’s spread out, a lot more running (for the linemen), a lot more pulling. Everything is pretty much faster.”


On the rise: Senior receiver/free safety Joey Mendez is primed for a breakout. Harbison believes he’ll be a key contributor on both sides of scrimmage.

“I’m really looking forward to this season,” Mendez said. “New coach, new energy, new everything almost. The future looks bright, but I’m just looking forward to improving from last year.

“Obviously disappointed not only by the team’s performance, but my own performance. I’ve been working all offseason to get better.”

Senior Maximus Morales and second-year junior Aydan Harris are the hybrid linebacker/safeties on defense. Morales may also play different roles offensively, including back-up to quarterback Arjun Birdi.


Schedule: Sierra will be a bit of a wild card to start, which may work to its advantage.

The T’wolves face their toughest non-league opponents in the first two weeks when traditional Trans-Valley League power Hughson and Stagg visit. They travel to Merced in Week 2 to meet postseason qualifier Golden Valley.

Sierra ends its non-league schedule against Armijo (road) and Modesto (home), 2-8 teams a year ago. The Timberwolves drew the SJS Division III finalists, Oakdale and Manteca, for their first two VOL matchups, both on the road.

“We just want to get better every day,” Harbison said. “We can look at however we did last against Hughson last year (49-0 loss) and get better from that. We’ll look to put a solid product on the field.”


Outlook: Improving from a 1-9 season is very doable, but this year’s group wants to set the tone for the new (or old) regime.

“I think we have the size and speed to compete with some of these top schools,” Ballard said. “Looking at 1-9, I don’t want to have that behind my name and the class of 2024. I want to be able to graduate with bragging rights.”

Ballard and the rest of the junior class had to grow up quickly last season, so it’s an experienced group. The current sophomores provided a glimmer of hope for the future, going 7-3 at the freshman level.

“We’ve had good numbers at the freshman and sophomore levels,” Harbison said. “The sophomores looked very solid in a passing tournament at the end of the summer and went 5-1. The kids are picking up what the coaches are teaching and running with it.”