YUBA CITY – Geo Juarez would have nothing to do with it.
With Sutter trailing by four points and facing a fourth down with time running down Saturday night, the Huskies’ Ben Huevelhorst caught a pass short of the first down. Juarez stuffed him on the spot, giving Sierra the ball. Mark Vicente took a knee twice and the Timberwolves made history as the first Manteca Unified school to play for a state football championship thanks to a 17-13 win over perennial North Section powerhouse Sutter in the CIF NorCal Division IV-A championship at River Valley High School.
“I saw him break on his route,” Juarez said. “I saw it all the way and I jumped it.”
All the game’s touchdowns were scored in the first quarter. Mark Paule Jr. capped off Sierra scoring drives of 80 and 54 yards with a pair of 1-yard plunges. After Paule Jr.’s first plunge, Bryce Kunkle returned the ensuing kick 93 yards for a touchdown for the Huskies.
Following that first quarter, it was all about defense. Ten-time North Section champion Sutter (9-5) came into Saturday night averaging 440 yards per game and did not even get 200. Credit the defensive front of the Timberwolves (9-5), led by Andrew Guevara. Of the five Sierra sacks, Guevara had 2.5 along with a tackle for a loss. Dilpreet Singh and Fernando Vega also spent plenty of time in the Sutter backfield.
“We practiced really hard for this one,” Guevara said. “We really wanted it and came out with heart. We finished with heart, too.”
Things nearly got away from Sierra in the fourth quarter. With 9:03 left in the game, Sutter tried a trick play from the Timberwolves 17-yard line on third down that was supposed to be a lateral followed by a pass downfield. It fooled the Sierra defense and appeared to work for a touchdown and the lead, but the lateral was ruled to be a forward pass, making the downfield throw an illegal forward pass. That penalty is a loss of down, and the ensuing protest by the Huskies led to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, taking them out of field-goal range.
Two plays later the Timberwolves fumbled the ball away inside their 20-yard line, and again, the defense came to the rescue. Sutter lost 8 yards on that drive and missed another field goal, setting up a game-clinching eight-play, 70-yard drive capped off by a Marcos Castillo’s 26-yard field goal with 2:53 left in the game to make the score 17-13.
“I just had to concentrate,” Castillo said. “And get that ball through the uprights.”
The first play of that final Sierra drive was a 41-yard scamper by quarterback Mark Vicente right up the Timberwolves sideline. Vicente was 10 of 18 passing for 87 yards and one interception while leading all rushers with 16 carries for 103 yards.
“We came out strong in the first quarter,” Vicente said. “But we came out kind of weak in the second quarter.
“We had to pick things up in the second half – I had to pick my things up – we had to take care of business. And our defense stopped them all day.”
The Huskies defense focused on Paule Jr., but he still managed to gain 98 yards on 21 carries with four receptions for 33 yards. Daniel Wyatt was Castillo’s favorite target, pulling in five passes for 44 yards.
“We are going to state,” Paule Jr. said. “All the hard work paid off.
“It was all about our defense. Defense wins games, and defense wins championships, just like it did tonight.”
Sierra coach Jeff Harbison followed suit with his assessment of the defense’s contribution to the win.
“This was one heck of a defensive game,” Harbison said. “My hat is off to Sutter. They were a formidable opponent to say the least. They were very stout defensively. We got a few breaks that went our way and we ended up on the better end of the scoreboard.
“We are peaking right now as a team. All three parts of the game are peaking and let’s roll that into next week.”
As for this week, following road wins at Calaveras and on Saturday the Timberwolves have one more road trip – to Chowchilla. The Redskins downed Fairfax-Los Angeles 28-16 on Saturday for the SoCal Division IV-A championship and will host Sierra on Saturday at 6 p.m. for the state championship.