Sierra players heard the rumblings from near and far.
After finishing in fifth place in the competitive Valley Oak League and with a 5-5 overall record, the Timberwolves were awarded the No. 3 seed and a first-round playoff game in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs. Some believed them to be unworthy of their placement in the bracket.
“There is something to prove because there are people doubting us saying we shouldn’t even be in the playoffs, but we played in one of the toughest leagues in California,” said center/linebacker Scott Teicheira.
They’re now a win away from the program’s first-ever section final appearance after holding off No. 6 Union Mine 24-21 last Friday. Head coach Jeff Harbison isn’t looking past the opening kickoff of this Friday’s semifinal contest with No. 2 Calaveras in San Andreas. Since their Week 9 matchup with Lathrop, Harbison said the focus has been on winning “the next play” instead of qualifying for the postseason.
Despite losing to Lathrop 37-35, Sierra has won enough plays since to get to this point. Lathrop was the top seed in Division IV but was upset by No. 8 Los Banos 30-29 in the opening round.
“When we lost to Lathrop I thought our season was going to be over and I got a little emotional about that,” Teicheira said. “Now that we’re here in the playoffs it’s pretty exciting. We want to go farther. Our guys are motivated because we weren’t expected to even go to the playoffs. Here we are with another opportunity and we want to make the best of it.”
Calaveras (8-3) has been to eight section title games but came up empty handed each time. Friday’s showdown at Frank Meyer Field will be the first between these two schools on the gridiron. The Redskins are the runners-up in the Mother Lode League, losing a 28-27 heartbreaker at Sonora, the No. 1 seed in Division V. They started the season 0-2 with losses to McNair, 74-26, and Escalon, 14-6, but have improved since. Among their regular-season conquests was a 28-21 victory over Union Mine in a nonleague contest.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for us,” Harbison said, “but I think we’re up for it.”
“Big” being that operative word.
The Calaveras offense has size in the trenches and skill positions. Tackles Garrett Heffington (6 foot-5, 280 pounds) and Dakota Sims (5-10, 260) and guard Justin Boitano (6-0, 285) anchor the line, while 6-4 quarterback Dylan Byrd (1,302 yards, 16 touchdowns, eight interceptions), 6 foot receiver Trevor Ramirez (601 yards, seven TDs) and 6-4, 230-pound tight end Shane Torre (434 yards, five TDs) star in the passing game.
The Redskins are best at running the ball, however. Anthony Giangregorio has rushed for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the late-season arrival of 5-9, 185-pound transfer Noah Preuss makes them even more dangerous. A standout lower-level running back as a freshman, Preuss transferred to Oakdale for his sophomore year before returning to Calaveras. He missed the first seven games of the regular season due to CIF transfer rules but has already compiled 689 yards and seven touchdowns in four games. In last week’s 28-7 win over Center, Preuss had 200 yards and two scores on 26 carries.
“They’ve got some big boys and they do a great job of getting to the second level,” Sierra safety Seuseu Alofaituli said. “They run their stuff crisp just like Oakdale does.”
Defensively, Calaveras is led by 5-9, 221-pound middle linebacker Nick Quinday (84 tackles), who is also a guard on offense. Ramirez has four interceptions at cornerback. Since the loss to Sonora, Calaveras has surrendered an average of 11 points per game.
“Calaveras’ defense is pretty strong,” Teicheira said. “With their 4-3 front they like to put a lot of guys in the box to overpower the offensive line.”
Sierra will counter with its balanced spread offense spearheaded by QB Mark Vicente (1,713 yards, 14 TDs, nine INTs), RB Mark Paule Jr. (1,020 yards, 10 TDs), WRs Daniel Wyatt (676 yards, four TDs) and Jimmy Galindo (499 yards, six TDs) and 6-6, 345-pound tackle Josh Fala.
The key for the Timberwolves will be to put four quarters together, which they have yet to do all season. They battled back from a 27-13 halftime deficit to upend Weston Ranch 34-27 in Week 10 and qualify for the postseason. And last week, Sierra shut out Union Mine in the first half and led 21-6 at one point in the third quarter before the Diamondbacks rallied in the fourth.
“The second half of that Weston Ranch game, it was like a whole different team,” Alofaituli said. “We should have played like that the whole season. If we come out like we did in the second half against Weston Ranch we’re a hard team to stop.
“We have to come out strong but we also have to finish strong. In the Union Mine game we came out strong but then we got big in the head, started making simple mistakes. We can’t do that Friday night.”