Sierra head coach Chris Johnson doesn’t want to develop a “happy to be here” attitude, but he and the Timberwolves have good reason to be ecstatic for extending their season for at least one more week.
Considering how Johnson’s first year with the program went, getting to the postseason in 2018 with new schemes, a revamped coaching staff and a young group of players is a major — and unexpected — achievement.
The T’wolves (5-5) are back in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs as the No. 9 seed in Division IV, and they’ll start with a familiar foe in No. 8 Pacheco (8-2) of Los Banos on Friday.
“It feels like we’ve been pushing a boulder up the mountain for a long time,” Johnson said. “That first year felt like one long preseason. To look at where we started this year with the youth and inexperience, it’s huge (to make the playoffs). Our JV won one game last year and the varsity won two, so our young guys were not used to having a whole lot of success.
“We talked all week about wanting this to be the expectation,” Johnson added. “Every year we want to go to the playoffs and well into November. Our goal is to compete at the level the Valley Oak League is at.”
Sierra is making its ninth postseason appearance and won the 2015 SJS Division IV title and a state championship bowl game. Pacheco, on the other hand, is looking to continue its historic season that includes a three-way share of its first championship in the Western Athletic Conference. The Panthers last qualified for the in 2014 and are seeking their first playoff victory.
“They execute very well, are well coached and their kids play hard,” Johnson said. “Coach (David) Snapp is the only coach they’ve had. They’ve been running the same system and they run it very well.”
Johnson and the Timberwolves are already acquainted with the Panthers having lost to them twice in non-league action the past two years. The rematch will serve as a good measure of how much Sierra has improved since the start of the season.
They previously met in Week 2 on Aug. 31 at Sierra’s Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium. Pacheco rolled, 36-14 and outgained the T’wolves 476-202 in offensive yards. Standout running back/linebacker Matt Dunham injured an ankle early in the contest and missed Sierra’s next four games. His toughness and playmaking ability were missed, but the time off allowed an unproven player to emerge.
The rematch will take place at Pacheco’s Veterans Stadium.
“For us, every game is a learning experience,” Johnson said. “In that one we learned that we have to play four quarters of football and we have to play with composure when an injury happens. Dunham went down in the first quarter and that shook our guys up for a half.
“Saul Contreras really stepped up in his place and got better and better all year.”
Marcus Ordunez commands Pacheco’s split-back veer offense and is as effective throwing the ball (64.3 completion percentage, 1,233 yards, 12 TDs, three INTs) as he is running it (814 yards, 17 TDs). Julian Moran (1,142 yards, 14 TDs) and Ronnie Garcia Jr. (803 yards, 10 TDs) each rushed for more than 100 yards in their first meeting with Sierra.
“(Ordunez) is a very good runner and he makes good reads,” Johnson said.” They’ve built their system around his strengths, and he has enough poise in the pocket to get the ball downfield on you.”
Pacheco was favored to wrap up sole possession of the WAC crown last week, but crosstown rival Los Banos pulled out a 28-21 to force the tri-championship along with Mountain House. Mountain House and Los Banos are seeded seventh and eighth in Division V.
The Sierra-Pacheco winner travels to top-seeded Rio Linda (8-2) next week.
“Honestly, we feel like playing in the VOL is a benefit to us,” Johnson said. “Even though there were some one-sided games, we still lined up against those teams and it’s like they say, iron sharpens iron. We’ll see. (Pacheco) is very good and they are senior heavy. It will be a tough challenge.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Sierra vs. Pacheco
WHAT: SJS Division IV opener
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Veterans Stadium, Los Banos
ADMISSION: $10 adults, $7 seniors (60-above), students (K-12), Children 5-under free