ELK GROVE — Sierra head coach Jeff Harbison commended Brandon Arreola for his hard running but reminded the junior running back to stay inbounds and keep that clock going.
“Oh yeah,” he said as he turned to his assistant coaches. “I forgot about the running clock.”
It had been a while since his Timberwolves were on the winning side of one of those, and they sure picked a good time to play their most complete game of the season.
Anchored by the ball-hawking defense and balanced spread offense, third-seeded Sierra grounded the high-flying No. 4 Hawks of Liberty Ranch 42-0 for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship. It was the first section football final for both schools, and Sierra (8-5), in the program’s 20th varsity season, made school history on this arctic Saturday night at Elk Grove High’s Thunder Stadium.
Harbison was too excited to show it, but he may have been the coldest person on the field after linemen Enrique Jasso and Josh Fala soaked him with buckets full of ice water during a timeout with 56 seconds remaining. Officials prolonged the break in action, requesting that Sierra clear the mounds of ice that spilled onto the turf.
There was otherwise no slowing Sierra’s roll all game.
“We played four quarters of football as a team,” Harbison said. “We’re peaking at the right time and we’re looking forward to what NorCals brings.”
Perhaps the the best has yet to come for the Timberwolves. They’ll find out in two weeks, either on Dec. 11 or 12, when they compete in a CIF Northern California Regional Bowl Game for the first time. Starting this year, all section champions will have a shot at earning state titles.
It’s about to get even colder for Harbison, not that he minds.
“It’s amazing to know we’re going to be practicing in December,” he said. “Our goal was to practice Thanksgiving week. To know that we met that goal and we’re moving on from there is a terrific feeling.”
Sierra punched its ticket with by outslugging Liberty Ranch’s prolific Wing-T attack. The Hawks (8-5) started out 0-4 this season before switching from the pistol offense and won eight in a row on their way to a Sierra Valley Conference crown and section-finals appearance. They gashed Dixon and Los Banos for more than 40 points apiece in their first two postseason contests. They were unstoppable — until Saturday.
Sierra’s defense allowed just 205 yards — 30 came on QB Rick Van Houten’s scramble on the final play of the game — forced five turnovers and scored on two of them.
“I can’t lie, I wasn’t expecting this, but these guys had it in them,” Sierra linebacker Seuseu Alofaituli said. “We all just did assignment football, did what coach taught us from Day 1.”
Geo Juarez accounted for two of those turnovers, both interceptions and one returned 40 yards for a touchdown that extended Sierra’s lead to 35-0 with 2:59 to go in the third.
The Timberwolves’ first defensive TD was set up by outstanding play on special teams. On the first play of the second quarter, Abraham Velasco’s punt landed inside the Liberty Ranch 10-yard line before Jesse Babauta downed it on the 3.
Liberty Ranch fumbled on the next play as fullback Devyn Giblin never secured the handoff from Van Houten, and Timberwolves linebacker Scott Teicheira pounced on it in the end zone to double Sierra’s lead to 12-0. Marcos Castillo missed the point-after kick, and though he was wide on three PATs he made up for it with a 26-yard field goal midway through the second period. Sierra led 15-0 at halftime.
Tim Brown later picked off a pass, Nashon Tamiano recovered a fumble forced by the 6-foot-6, 345-pound Fala, defensive end Andrew Guevara had two sacks to give him 16 for the season and Jasso added one sack of his own. Brown’s pick was returned 79 yards and led to Paule’s 9-yard touchdown run, which also represented the final points scored in the contest, 51 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Harbison pointed to past experiences in guarding against various wing offenses — Ripon, Lodi, East Union and Division III finalist Oakdale — and said they helped prepare his team for its latest opponent. Saul Lomeli paced Liberty Ranch with 59 yards on 13 rushes, and Van Houten was 4 of 13 through the air for 66 yards. Van Houten also ran for 57 yards.
The Hawks were able to catch Sierra’s defense off guard with a quick tempo on their opening drive, as Lomeli pounded his way to a 9-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage and rushed for a first down on the next sequence. Liberty Ranch didn’t break through the 50-yard line until its final series of the first half, which ended with Devin Hardaway’s missed 28-yard field goal as time expired.
“We just had to get warmed up at the beginning,” Alofaituli said. “It’s kind of cold out here. We had to get the butterflies out and the first hits out of the way. They came in at the beginning and (took) it to us. We got used to everything and we did our thing.”
Quarterback Mark Vicente, wide receiver Daniel Wyatt and running back Mark Paule Jr. shined again for the offense.
Vicente completed 11 of 16 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns to Wyatt against no interceptions while rushing for 43 more yards. Wyatt, who capped Sierra’s opening drive with a 40-yard catch-and-dash on short screen pass, had 119 yards on four receptions. Paule rambled for two second-half touchdowns and compiled 140 yards from scrimmage (89 rushing).
It would have been an all-around perfect game if not for the point-after hiccups and 10 penalties, one of which was declined, but Sierra will nitpick later. Considering where they were at halftime of their Week 10 contest with Valley Oak League rival Weston Ranch, the Timberwolves are going to enjoy this one before getting back to work. Their postseason hopes appeared dim while down 27-13 to Weston Ranch, which also needed to win the regular-season finale to advance. Sierra dominated the rest of the game and won, 34-27.
The T’wolves squeaked into the playoffs as No. 72 among the 72 teams that qualified in Divisions I-VI, and they did so with a 5-5 record and fifth-place finish in the powerful VOL.
“We’ve come a long way,” Wyatt said. “At the start we had a lot of people doubting us and we didn’t have all our pieces together. Since the second half of the Weston Ranch game we’ve gotten it together.”