Week after week there was a growing belief in Lancer Land that East Union High’s football team could actually make a run at a postseason berth.
Then on the final Friday of the regular season the unthinkable happened: East Union beat previously undefeated rival Manteca, 10-7.
The 2010 season was one marked by several benchmark moments for then-head coach Mike James and the Lancers, who made their first Sac-Joaquin Section playoff appearance since 1992, tallied their first 3-0 start since 1993 and posted their first winning record (7-4) since 1999.
And the win over Manteca was the first in 11 years.
“There’s pressure on us to keep it going, but I think we’ll handle it well,” said returning RB/LB Tyler Hardesty.
Replicating that success will be no easy task for new head coach Willie Herrera, who previously served as the team’s defensive coordinator. East Union graduated most of its top contributors, leaving behind just three returning starters on offense and four on defense. The rest of the 50-man roster offers little varsity experience, with several first-year players in competition for starting spots with juniors who won a single game for the sophomore squad last year.
“Last year was magical, no doubt,” Herrera said. “East Union hadn’t experienced a season like that in a very long time, and to see how this campus was operating was amazing. There were kids who didn’t want to play football last year and they know they missed out on something.
“Now these guys are coming out because they want a piece of that. They know that it’s attainable, but the group we had last year worked their tails off for it.”
The 2010 squad included all-Valley Oak League first-team quarterback TeeJay Gordon, standout wide receiver Robert Vaughn and an experienced offensive line. Four defensive players were named to the all-league second team: lineman Cody Christensen, linebackers Dominic Barba and Jose Manzano and defensive back Ryan Ward.
All have graduated, but there is reason for optimism.
Two-way starter Steven Gigli, a star player on the school’s co-league champion baseball team, was the team’s leading rusher as a junior. The athletic Terrance Williams takes over as the No. 1 receiver, while Josh Kolkmann will call the shots for the line at center. Senior tackle Jojo Daigle (6-4, 220) and junior Josh Byrd (6-0, 270) give the Lancers some size on an otherwise smallish line.
Behind Kolkmann is sophomore quarterback Joe Menzel, the centerpiece of East Union’s young up-and-coming talent. Menzel started the 2010 season with the freshman team before moving up to the sophomore level midway through.
“It’s nice that they have faith in me,” Menzel said. “I’m not nervous at all to be a sophomore quarterback because I have some great receivers, a good line that will block for me and a good running game that will help out the passing game.”
Herrera said Menzel proved himself during a full-contact camp at the University of California, which included many of Northern California’s top programs such as Folsom, Merced and Centennial of Bakersfield. Menzel exuded confidence and poise but especially impressed his coaches as a decision maker.
“He threw only one pick at the Cal camp because he doesn’t force anything and he gets rid of the ball quickly,” Herrera said.
There are also big shoes to fill in the 3-4 defense. Zak Lewallen — who grew from 5-9, 170 pounds to 6-0, 200 since last season — was rewarded for his offseason work with a starting inside linebacker spot. Juniors CJ Cardenas, Nick Herrera and Brennan Koeller figure to see ample time alongside Lewallen and Hardesty.
Kolkman and Daigle bring experience to the defensive line, where there is some depth. The two seniors will start at the ends, and they each recorded three sacks last year. First-year senior Daniel Riviera has been a welcome surprise despite missing the team’s summer workouts.
Gigli provides a veteran presence in the defensive backfield, where he is joined by free safety Williams.
“It’s always nice to have those superstar studs, but I’ll take a hard worker any day,” Herrera said. “And we have a lot of those kids. Everything that we’ve asked these kids to do they’ve done it without a gripe.
“All of these kids are willing to do the extra, which is great because we have some inexperience on this team — a lot of first-year players.
“With inexperience we don’t know how to win football games and we don’t know the right way to practice.”
That is why Herrera didn’t wait to put his players to work. The team’s summer schedule was arguably the busiest among area teams, starting with weight training at 6 in the morning. Herrera has since adopted the phrase “all-day tough” as the team’s war cry.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but that’s what makes good football teams,” Hardesty said. “And I think we’ll be good this year.”