The banner hangs above the press box window at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium, serving as a reminder of the Sierra football team’s greatest achievement — “2015 CIF State Football Champions.”
“It’s something to live up to,” slotback/cornerback Nyco Mendoza said before night practice on Wednesday. “It gives us hope, more motivation. They did it and we can, too. This is the first step, and I feel like we have yet to play our best game.”
Mendoza and his fellow seniors were eighth graders when the 2015 Timberwolves went on their Cinderella run to the state’s Division IV-A title after a fifth-place finish in the Valley Oak League. Sierra hasn’t won a postseason game since the 20-15 thriller at Chowchilla on Dec. 19 of that year. The last time Sierra hosted a playoff game was when it dropped a 29-27 decision to Center in the 2016 opener.
Now seeded fifth for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs, Sierra (7-3) has an opportunity to end the drought Friday against sophomore sensation Jabari Phillips and No. 13 Golden Valley (4-6).
The T’wolves are back in the postseason for the 10th time, second under third-year coach Chris Johnson. Last year, they were eliminated in the first round by a 34-33 loss at Pacheco, which had beaten them far more decisively earlier in the season.
“It’s a much different mentality — we want it all,” Sierra quarterback/safety Shane Johnson said. “We’re a much more physical team than we were last year and we want to go as far as we can with this and keep this family together.”
The Timberwolves get to host two playoff games, getting the No. 5 Atwater-No. 12 Kimball winner should they get past Golden Valley. They’re not looking past the Cougars of Merced, however.
Like Sierra, they’re battle tested in recent weeks, dropping three of their last four Central California Conference contests with some of their top players out with injuries. They have one common opponent in Central Valley, which lost to Sierra 42-14 in Week 1 and later beat Golden Valley 30-23 in CCC play.
“It’s truly 0-0,” coach Johnson said. “I’ve been around long enough to know that you don’t underestimate anyone no matter what the seed is.”
Golden Valley grinds it out behind a sturdy line anchored by 6-foot-3, 295-pound tackle Aristeo Prado. Phillips has benefitted from it, pounding out 1,601 yards (7.9 per carry) and 21 touchdowns in just eight games. He has five 200-yard games and set a school record with six touchdowns in a 49-12 win over Livingston.
Phillips, though, is among Golden Valley’s injured stars; leading receiver Avery Townsel and 6-0, 240-pound linebacker Ryan Nunes joined him on the sidelines the past two weeks.
“They’re a good team, no doubt about it,” Shane Johnson said. “We’re excited to play them. They have a very good back, and he’s a talented kid.”
Coach Johnson believes the rigors of the VOL have his team ready for Golden Valley’s style of play. Three of Sierra’s last five contests were losses to VOL tri-champions Central Catholic, Oakdale and rival Manteca — all traditionally smash-mouth teams.
Oakdale is seeded second in the bracket, while Manteca and Central Catholic are in the more competitive Division III and II, respectively.
“We’ve been in games with some extremely physical teams,” Chris Johnson said. “Those games toughen you up. In the VOL you get tough or die.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Golden Valley (4-6) vs. Sierra (7-3)
WHAT: SJS Division IV opener
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m. kickoff
WHERE: Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium
ADMISSION: $12 adults, $8 seniors (65-above)/military, $5 students (K-12), children 5-under are free