There’s a lot at stake for Sierra tonight during its Valley Oak League showdown against Manteca at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.
The Timberwolves can set themselves up for a share of the school’s second-ever VOL title by knocking off cross-town rival Manteca (5-0 VOL, 7-1 overall), which has won six straight.
Sierra (4-1, 6-2) isn’t backing down.
The T’Wolves, who captured the school’s first VOL championship in 2009, know what they have to do in order to accomplish that feat again.
Sierra will not only have to establish its own running game, which has been held to 40 yards or less twice in the last four weeks, but it will have to keep the Buffaloes’ punishing running attack from eating up the clock and controlling tempo.
“Manteca has a very potent offense,” Sierra head coach Jeff Harbison said. “They have power and speed, and they’re solid both passing and running the football. They have a big, solid (offensive) line, but I think our front seven is pretty battle-tested.”
Senior tackles Aaron Thiel and Khalil Williams, and linebackers Adam Bettencourt and Trevon McCray are part of that tested front seven. They will have their hands full with Manteca’s huge offensive line, anchored by its 6-foot, 1-inch, 301-pound senior Billy Sharmoug and 6-3, 291-pound senior Isaac McClain.
Manteca’s line has created gaping holes for running backs Alex Laurel (750 yards, 13 rushing TDs), Michael Gonzalez (490 yards) and Carl Chandler (296 yards), who have contributed significantly to the Buffaloes’ 1,949 yards on the ground and 243.6 per game average.
“Manteca’s offense throws a lot at you, they run a variety of formations,” Sierra offensive coordinator Jeff Abrew said. “We just have to get lined up before each play and go play football. The kids are prepared and focused and it’s time to see what happens on the field.”
Sierra will pay extra-close attention to Laurel, also the Buffaloes’ special teams threat. Laurel has compiled 1,437 all-purpose yards and 24 total touchdowns.
“They have a good run game in the middle and they hit the perimeter with quickness and power,” Harbison added. “It’s a dangerous combination to have the size and speed they have. We have to stop whoever is carrying the football.
“Laurel is a dangerous threat, and we’re aware of what he’s done this year, but he’s just one player on the team. We have to stop whoever is carrying the football.”
Offensively, Sierra’s strengths lie within the arm of senior quarterback Jake Pruitt (2,291 yards, 27 TDs) and its core of receivers led by Bryson Sanders (525 yards, 4 TDs) and Lucas Widmer (747 yards, 8 TDs).
Sierra’s running game has been absent at times and Abrew isn’t afraid to look strictly to Pruitt and its aerial attack tonight.
“Manteca’s defense is very aggressive and physical and we have to be able to be balanced,” Abrew said. “They’re very disciplined in what they do and we just have to be able to move the ball in a variety of ways. But we’re going to go with what works, and if we can only pass then we’ll pass. The goal is to come in and try to establish both options, but we’re going to do what we do and move the football in any way possible.
“Obviously we’ve had to go one-dimensional before because we couldn’t get the running game going, but we have all the confidence in the world that Jake will make the right throws and the receivers will catch the football, so we’ll see what happens.”
Manteca hasn’t won a VOL title since it split with Oakdale in 2010. Oakdale has won at least a share of the last six VOL titles, but last week’s stunning loss to Kimball knocked it out of the race.
The VOL title will now be decided between cross-town rivals for the first time in city history. With a win over Manteca and Weston Ranch in Week 10, Sierra can earn at least a share of the title.
“Previous games we’ve showed we can score points when we need to,” said Harbison of an offense averaging 41 points. “We have a trio of very solid receivers, Jake is throwing the ball really well, Reid (Maestas) gets the yards we need on the ground and I definitely think we’re getting it done offensively.
“Our ultimate goal is a VOL title and to go deep into the playoffs.”