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East Union, Lathrop battle for respectability in VOL opener
FRI preview East Union-Lathrop ADV file 2
Isaias Hunter keeps his legs turning while grabbed by multiple Ripon players after making a catch for Lathrop on Sept. 11. - photo by WAYNE THALLANDER/The Buletin

They’ve been the cellar dwellers of the Valley Oak League, but the East Union, Lathrop and Weston Ranch football teams are looking to ascend toward higher ground starting tonight.

They go into their league openers with a combined 5-1 record, as Lathrop (2-1) hosts East Union (3-0) for homecoming at Bennie Gatto Field, while Weston Ranch visits highly-regarded Central Catholic of Modesto in a duel between undefeated teams. 

From 2009, Lathrop’s inaugural varsity campaign, to 2014, the three Manteca Unified rivals combined for a 43-137 record and just one playoff appearance. East Union ended a 17-year postseason drought in 2010 and finished with its first winning record (7-4) since 1999.

Fifth-year Lancer head coach Willie Herrera was the defensive coordinator for Mike James’ 2010 squad. Herrera took over the following year and endured three straight 1-9 seasons. East Union is now 3-0 and is coming off its biggest win under Herrera, a 30-27 thriller against Modesto Metro Conference contender Gregori. The 2010ers were also perfect going into league, which the Lancers hadn’t achieved since 1993.

Herrera can finally see his vision becoming a reality. The Lancers took positive steps last season when they went 3-7, although they hit speed bumps along the way, including a mid-season shake-up to the coaching staff at every level. Injuries forced Herrera to promote many of his top sophomore players to the varsity, and the freshman team forfeited its Week 10 contest with Manteca with only 10 healthy players available. 

“Having gone through what we did last year, we understood that it was going to benefit us the next year,” Herrera said. “I’m glad we started off 3-0, because if we didn’t I would have looked like an idiot for what I did last year. There was a bigger reason for it and we had taken our lumps.

“Our program (including the freshman and sophomore squads) right now is 8-0-1; I can’t find a time that has ever happened at East Union. It means a lot to the coaching staff and the players. We’re on the right track and things are starting to pay off, but we still got a ways to go.”

First-year head coach Joey Pirillo and Lathrop have won back-to-back games, including an eye-opening 24-13 victory over Ripon. The only other time Lathrop entered league play with a winning record was in 2010, when the Spartans started out 2-1 but lost the rest.

Even though Pirillo wasn’t around for the school’s first six years, he isn’t downplaying the importance of tonight’s game.

“This game is huge,” he said. “Lathrop has never won a homecoming game and East Union is undefeated. 

It’s been very business-like the last couple of weeks. These kids are starting to buy in, and they’re buying in with everything they’ve got.”

Both coaches are impressed by their Week 4 opponents. 

“They look really good,” Herrera said of the upstart Spartans. “Their defense is stout, they have some good-sized linemen and athletes everywhere. This isn’t the Lathrop team from a couple years ago. We’re not taking this game lightly.”

Lathrop hasn’t given up more than 14 points in a game, and its only loss, 12-7, is to 3-1 West. Quarterback Diego Chavez leads an improving offense, but key match-up tonight will be the Spartans’ defense against East Union’s high-flying offense.

Junior signal caller Jack Weaver (25 of 37, 630 yards, six TDs, two interceptions) is also the Lancers’ leading rusher (169 yards, five TDs). He and wide receiver Austin Miller (319 yards, four TDs) picked up where they left off from 2014, and 6-foot-3 Baily Simons (198 yards, two TDs) is emerging as one of the area’s top tight ends.

“That will be the exciting thing to watch, is our defense against their offense,” Pirillo said. “Jack Weaver, the way he ‘s playing right now he’s a guy you have to contain, and he’s got weapons all over the field. He may have the stats, but we recognize the other guys putting in work, too.”

Also tonight:

uSierra (2-1) heads to The Coral to face Oakdale (3-0) in a rematch between the VOL’s 2014 co-champions. The Timberwolves have just two wins over Oakdale in the last 19 years, including the 31-20 result in 2014. Sierra bounced back from its 34-20 Week Zero loss to Ripon with two straight wins, but Oakdale appears to be in midseason form. The Mustangs vanquished longtime traditional foes Sonora, 41-15, and Turlock, 24-13, before thrashing Menlo-Atherton, 61-7.

uManteca (3-0) celebrates homecoming Friday with its first game at Guss Schmiedt Field in nearly a month. With quarterbacks Dakarai Charles and Gino Campiotti spearheading an improving offense, the defense has shined in the Buffaloes’ three blowout victories. Kimball (1-2) was routed by its two crosstown rivals, West and Tracy, and toppled winless Bear Creek 21-7 in  Week 1. Manteca should again win handily with tougher tests to come: Weston Ranch and Sierra both on the road, then Central Catholic back at home on Oct.16.

uWeston Ranch has a tough first assignment in Central Catholic, which seized a third consecutive state Division IV championship last year. The Cougars, however, are off to a dominant start and outscored Galt and Davis 100-0 in their last two nonleague contests. Seth Davis already has as many wins as he did in each of his first two seasons as Weston Ranch head coach. Since their first varsity season in 2004, the Cougars have had just one winning season. In 2005, Steve Jackson led them to a three-way share of the VOL title and what remains the program’s only playoff appearance.

uRipon (1-3) is in danger of carrying a 1-4 record into Trans-Valley League play for a second year in a row. If the Indians are to snap their current three-game losing streak, they’ll have to earn it against one of the Northern Section’s top squads. Sutter (2-1) blasted Ripon 49-6 last year before capturing the section’s Division III title and earning a spot in the CIF Division III State Northern California Regional Bowl Game. The Huskies lone loss was to Salinas powerhouse Palma, 42-14.