LATHROP — In a game pitting two rival programs working in new offenses, it was defense that anchored Sierra’s 19-7 victory over Lathrop on Friday.
The Timberwolves (2-2) returned an interception for a touchdown, sacked Lathrop quarterback Justin Manuel (5 of 8, 41 yards; 13 rushes, four yards) four times and allowed just 176 yards after the Spartans’ spread offense carved up Kimball for nearly 500 yards in a 27-26 defeat two weeks ago.
Sierra was without two-way standout Matt Dunham, a hard-hitting linebacker and running back who was out with an ankle injury.
“We put it out there for him,” Sierra lineman Holden Fishburn said. “There’s nothing he wouldn’t give to be out here with us.
“We finally played to our potential, man, that’s all it took. We locked them down. There’s nothing else to say other than we locked them down.”
Fishburn accounted for three of the sacks. Romero Sesma (sack, pass deflection) and 6-foot-2, 277-pound Omar Maxwell were also disruptive at the line of scrimmage.
“We challenged our defense this week and really worked on some things that Lathrop does really well,” Sierra coach Chris Johnson said. “Our kids stepped up, and they were on the field a lot tonight. I can’t say enough about those kids and what they’re doing.”
The pick-six opened scoring in the second half and followed two straight sacks. The Spartans (0-3) had it on their own 16-yard line on third-and-7 when Damian Simon stepped in front of an underthrown ball intended for Maurice Saulsbury II (three receptions, 32 yards) and returned it 23 yards to the end zone.
“That’s his favorite receiver, so what I did was just play over him,” Simon said. “As soon as I caught it it just felt like a dream. I just started running and hoped for the best.”
Lathrop threatened to counter on the next drive when sophomore Isaac Ramos (19 rushes, 94 yards, touchdown) broke away from the crowd at the line of scrimmage and had plenty of running room ahead of him before Carlos Tovar made the touchdown-saving tackle. The 30-yard gain was later followed by a helmet-contact penalty that set the Spartans up inside the Sierra 30, but they ended up turning it over on downs.
Their final two drives of the game stalled inside the Sierra 25.
“Sierra played hard,” Lathrop coach Joe Pirillo said. “They played tough, but when you’re making multiple mistakes on every single play it’s hard to judge if the team was better than you. Right now, it’s just normal for us to make mistakes and we just can’t seem to shake it.”
Both offenses struggled to get untracked in the early going.
It was Sierra’s triple-option attack that struck first. On the first play of its third drive in the opening quarter, quarterback Shane Johnson (nine rushes, 66 yards) bolted 55-yards for a touchdown.
After coming up empty-handed on its first five drives, Lathrop got the spark it needed late in the second quarter when Felipe Renteria came up with an interception. The Spartans drove 61 yards on nine plays in 1 minute, 50 seconds, with Ramos capping the series with a 10-yard scamper.
Lathrop could have taken a 7-6 lead into halftime (Sierra had earlier missed the PAT), but costly mistakes in the secondary gave the Timberwolves — who started the final drive of the half on their 38 with 28 seconds remaining — the opportunity to jump back ahead.
The Spartans were flagged for pass interference on back-to-back plays, and with no time left Sierra’s Jordan Shinn drilled a 36-yard field goal. Shinn capped the final score with a 33-yard boot with 7:49 left in the game.
“It was deflating,” Pirillo said of the closing moments of the half.
Sierra relied on the run game to move the offense, finishing with 234 yards all on the ground. Sophomore running back Kimoni Stanley pounded his way to 105 yards on 22 carries, and his brother Nick added 39 yards on three attempts. Saul Contreras, replacing Dunham as a starting running back, contributed four rushes for 24 yards.
Sierra overcame 13 turnovers and had some trouble with handling the ball, particularly on option pitches.
“They did some things that kind of rattled our reads a little bit,” coach Johnson said. “(The triple option) is so technical that it takes time to get the precision down.
“We’re not there yet, we still have a lot of work to do, but we do have some kids with speed that can pick the ball up and make plays.
“We have a lot of young guys out there playing their first varsity season, so we’re growing up as we go. You rip and run and do the best you can. Every rep we get is experience for our guys.”
Sierra 6 3 7 3 — 19
Lathrop 0 7 0 0 — 7
S—Shane Johnson 55 run (kick failed), 1:37.
L—Isaac Ramos 10 run (Jesus Fierros kick), 0:28.
S—Jordan Shinn 36 field goal, 0:00.
S—Damian Simon 31 interception return (Shinn kick), 4:47.
S—Shinn 33 field goal, 7:45.