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Upstart Sierra facing established NS power
Sierra players run sideline-to-sideline as they warm up for practice. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

They are two programs from two schools that couldn’t be any more different, and their worlds collide Saturday at River Valley High’s Falcon Stadium in the CIF State Regional Division IV-A Northern California Bowl Game.

Sutter High, with an enrollment of 693 students, has been around for more than 100 years and hails from a one-horse town of about 3,000 residents.

Sierra, Manteca’s third high school which opened in 1994, nearly doubles Sutter’s student population at 1,321.

Having been around longer, Sutter’s football program is rich with history and tradition. The Huskies (9-4) have won 10 straight North Section championships, three coming in the last four years, and are making their third appearance in a NorCal Game.

As for the Timberwolves (8-5), they have two Valley Oak League titles — both shared with Oakdale — and just claimed their first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section banner. That, of course, means they’re newbies to the state’s championship Bowl series.

Sierra is looking forward to the new scenery. While the Timberwolves travel about 105 miles to Yuba City, it’s a mere 10-mile jaunt for “host” Sutter. The winner squares off with the winner of the Chowchilla-Fairfax (Los Angeles) SoCal regional for a state title on Saturday, Dec. 19.

Sierra junior linebacker Seuseu Alofaituli said the team enjoyed its trip to San Andreas for the SJS Division IV semifinals and is looking forward to an even longer ride. Sierra played San Calaveras of San Andreas for the first time in program history and won, 34-20.

“We love the long bus rides,” Alofaituli said. “Usually our bus rides are only about 30 minutes long. Calaveras had beautiful surroundings, and I can’t wait to see what it’s like up in Yuba City.”

It’s an interesting matchup of teams with different styles of play.

Sierra runs its spread offense, which takes on different identities from year to year depending on personnel. The 2015 version is balanced, using short passes and screen plays to set up downfield heaves and the running game.

Sutter gives Sierra a familiar look with the Wing-T, using its hulking linemen and deception to grind out drives and wear down defenses. The Timberwolves have seen other variations of wing offenses, from Ripon to Lodi to Oakdale to East Union and Liberty Ranch, which they pummeled 42-0 in the SJS final.

The Huskies’ Wing-T is different than others Sierra has faced. They’re similar to Oakdale’s in terms of tempo and the ability to hurt teams deep off of play-action, but they also run the belly and down options effectively.

 “Sutter is a really well organized, disciplined football team,” Sierra coach Jeff Harbison said. “They run the Wing well. They do the simple things right, they’re big, they’re physical and it’s going to be a real test for us Saturday night.

“Defensively we have to play assignment football, or the game can get out of hand in a hurry. Our defense, fortunately, is accustomed to playing against the Wing and we’ve had some success against it this year, and hopefully it continues.”

There are some similarities between the two squads.

Both suffered early losses to Ripon — the Indians topped Sierra 34-20 in Week Zero and stifled Sutter 28-3 in Week 4 — but have steadily improved over the course of the season behind emerging quarterbacks. And both posted impressive wins in their section championship games.

Sutter has won four straight since its Butte View League loss to rival Orland but avenged that defeat in the NS Division III final with a resounding 38-7 victory.

Sierra is also on a four-game roll after a close 37-35 setback against Lathrop, the No. 1-seeded team in the SJS Division IV bracket which was upset in the opening round by Los Banos. Sierra has losses to SJS Division III finalists Oakdale and Central Catholic and cross-town foe Manteca.

“Their record is very misleading,” Sutter coach Ryan Reynolds told the Appeal-Democrat, speaking of Sierra. “They are definitely battle-tested like we are. I think this is a very intriguing matchup.”