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VOL co-champion SHS was dominant in 14
Sierra wide receiver Daniel Wyatt pounds his chest while celebrating his 37-yard touchdown catch against 10th-seeded Rio Linda. The No. 2 Timberwolves went into halftime leading 24-21 but ultimately lost the shootout, 49-44. - photo by HIME ROMERO/ The Bulletin

One by one, Jeff Harbison met the tear-drenched faces of his players with a smile and congratulatory embrace for their efforts of a successful season, but one that ended sooner than they had hoped.

Sierra High’s football team yearned to reach the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III finals for the first time and was thwarted by Rio Linda 49-44 in the second round at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium. Tenth-seeded Rio Linda put the finishing touches on its second straight upset victory with Zak Burden’s 5-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds remaining.

For the second-seeded Timberwolves, it was a heartbreaking finish to what started out as a season full of promise.

Sierra steamrolled through its first three opponents and continued its impressive march with benchmark victories over Central Catholic and Oakdale in Valley Oak League play.

Pundits took notice of the Timberwolves’ 8-0 start. Cal-Hi Sports had them at No. 3 in its CIF Northern California Division II Bowl rankings, and they were seventh overall in MaxPreps’ SJS Top 25.

Boasting one of the state’s leading rushers in Mark Paule Jr. and a daunting defensive unit led by hard-hitting linebacker Trevon McCray, a perfect regular-season finish, section championship and CIF Regional Bowl bid were not out of the question for Sierra.

Then came the first blow: A 34-20 loss at rival Manteca in a driving rain on Halloween night. Sierra settled for a VOL title share with Oakdale, the team the Timberwolves expected to meet in Friday’s semifinal.

Still, the accomplishments far outweigh the few disappointments. For one, Sierra stepped outside the shadows of its chief VOL rivals, confirming Oakdale coach Trent Merzon’s earlier claim that the Timberwolves have been “one of the best-kept secrets in the Valley for a long time” and that outsiders are finally “realizing how good they are.” Sierra qualified for the postseason for the sixth time in seven years under 10th-year head coach Harbison.

Paule is the Timberwolves’ first running back to break the 2,000-yard barrier, as he shattered Anthony Cota’s 2012 records for rushing (2,024 yards) and touchdowns scored (44). Sierra’s massive line, anchored by 6-foot, 280-pound center Joseph Valenzuela, helped make it possible.

First-year quarterback Devin Nunez, a senior, proved to be a worthy replacement for record-breaking signal caller Jake Pruitt. He had his best all-around effort against Rio Linda, passing for 186 yards and rushing for 126 while accounting for two touchdowns.

Hunter Johnson, a 6-4 senior wideout, had 38 catches for 716 yards and nine touchdowns.  He keyed the 17-14 win over Central Catholic with a season-best eight-catch, 134-yard effort, which included the eventual game-winning touchdown snag.

The defense also loses some of its top players starting with McCray, who led the team with 73 tackles, 18 for losses, six sacks and five forced fumbles through 11 games. L.J. Alofaituli (53 tackles, 3.5 sacks), Connor Melton (six sacks), Sean Murray (4.5 sacks) and Tyler Lewis (54 tackles, seven pass deflections, three fumble recoveries) are others who will be missed.

Perhaps the biggest departure comes from the coaching staff, as Jeff Abrew stepped down from his position as offensive coordinator. Despite the heavy losses, Sierra is set up to make another run at it next season.

Paule is part of a talented junior class that includes 6-6, 335-pound lineman Joshua Fala, receiver Daniel Wyatt, middle linebacker Enrique Jasso and defensive lineman Andrew Guevara (seven sacks). The defense included three starting sophomore safeties in Marcos Castillo (four interceptions), Nashon Tamiano and Seuseu Alofaituli. The trio led Sierra’s freshman team to the 2013 VOL championship. Castillo starred in a utility role for the Timberwolves this past season and could be Nunez’s successor at quarterback after serving as his backup.