Mike Kuhnlenz has a unique perspective on what has been a blossoming rivalry between East Union and Kimball, which now meets in Week 10 for the first time.
The two teams square off Friday at Dino Cunial Field in a game with massive postseason implications at the top of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV bracket. According to MaxPreps’ latest playoff projections, Kimball should be lock for the top seed in Division IV if it wins. East Union is projected as the No. 6 seed but could sneak into the top four, which comes with a first-round bye.
“This is a tough opponent, so that’s really been our main focus,” Kuhnlenz said. “We have our hands full.”
Kuhnlenz and much of his assistants are well aware of what they’re up against. He coached Kimball for three-plus years while working full-time as a campus monitor for East Union, but mere hours before the Jaguars kicked off the pandemic-shortened spring season last March he was fired by Tracy Unified School District for unspecified reasons.
Two months later, East Union administration jumped at the opportunity to hire the up-and-comer as its head coach. Kimball (4-1, 8-1 overall) has since ascended to new heights under LaTe’f Grim and are in second place in the loaded Valley Oak League, while Kuhnlenz has the improving Lancers (2-3, 5-4) comfortably within range of an at-large berth for the postseason.
“Super proud of those boys over there,” Kuhnlenz said. “Obviously, you want what’s best for anyone you’ve coached and they’re having a lot of success and putting up crazy numbers.”
Kuhnlenz has implemented the spread offense at both schools, and now they boast two of the most explosive passing attacks in the SJS.
Third-year quarterback Nicholas Coronado stars for the Jaguars. His 3,321 passing yards are fourth most in the nation, according to stats submitted to MaxPreps, and his 43 touchdowns are tied for second most. Last week, he led Kimball to its first-ever win, 58-41, over reigning VOL tri-champion Manteca, throwing for 500 yards and seven TDs. Coronado is complemented by a stable of talented receivers led by Willie Clifton (1,044 yards, 15 TDs), Mason Rivera (976-12) and Travis Marieiro (724-8).
Ranked ninth in the SJS by MaxPreps, Kimball’s lone loss came against No. 3 Central Catholic, 55-16.
Kuhnlenz and his staff are now tasked with trying upend the monster they created. Kimball won the last two against the Lancers in dramatic barnburners.
“That whole roster is just stacked with dudes, and I’m not just saying it because I know them and coached — their record proves it,” Kuhnlenz said. “We used to joke, me and some of the coaches, and say, ‘Can you imagine going up against these guys in a few years?’ Here we are going against them.”
Kuhnlenz has liked how his current project is progressing, so far. The Lancers have quickly developed into a high-flying attack in their own right.
Luke Weaver gives Kuhnlenz a different kind of weapon behind center. The 6-foot-3 senior is one of the top dual-threat QBs in the Section having completed 66.8 percent of passes for 2,454 yards and 22 touchdowns while running for a team-high 503 yards and 13 TDs. He is supported by 6-2 Dylan Lee,, the leading receiver in the SJS with 1,100 yards and 13 scores.
East Union’s confidence has grown with every week, even as it goes into Week 10 having lost two of its three games. In those defeats, however, the Lancers had halftime leads against both Manteca and Central Catholic but came up short in those wild upset bids.
“Losing in overtime (40-34) to Manteca has definitely been a motivating factor for them, and then to go toe-to-toe with Central Catholic for about three quarters shows again that we have the confidence to compete with these teams,” he said. “We’re not going to back down from anybody.”
Here’s a glance at other Week 10 contests and how they factor into the postseason:
Manteca (7-2) at Oakdale (6-2): While Central Catholic has its fingertips on the outright VOL crown, these two traditional powers will clash at The Corral with plenty still left on the line.
Manteca finds itself scrapping to retain a top-two seed in Division III after dropping back-to-back against Central Catholic and Kimball. Against Kimball, the Buffaloes lost standout running backs Blake Nichelson and Lyon Colon to ankle injuries. Manteca coach Mark Varnum said they are game-time decisions.
There has been some urgency in practice, considering the team’s drop in form since coming out of its Week-5 bye. Oakdale is projected to be the No. 4 seed, in D-III but could switch spots with Manteca by winning.
“We’re still trying to get that mojo back,” Varnum said. “We want to get momentum for the playoffs. We put ourselves in a good spot early on, now we want to finish strong and get ready for the second season.”
Central Catholic (8-1) at Sierra (1-8): It has been a rough season from the start for the Timberwolves, who were robbed of their first week of practice because of COVID-19 protocols. Now, they get to close this rebuilding campaign against the VOL’s top team after their bye.
The good news is there is hope for the future for the reigning SJS Division IV champions, who now have sophomores with ample varsity experience after the junior varsity team folded early in the season. Among the promising sophomores is running back Anthony Grady, who rushed for 270 yards and three touchdowns in a non-league defeat at Stagg. There is also talent at the freshman level, where Sierra is 7-2.
Meanwhile, Central Catholic has established itself as a favorite in the always-competitive Division II playoffs. MaxPreps predicts the Raiders to be the top seed of the bracket.
Lathrop (5-3) at Mountain House (4-5): Lathrop may have had its postseason hopes dashed at Los Banos last week, but the Spartans are sure to be motivated for their Western Athletic Conference finale regardless.
The Old River Rivalry shifts to Mountain House after the Mustangs came back to beat Lathrop on the road 22-15 last spring. That wound up being the only game of the short season for Lathrop, which had four get cancelled because of coronavirus protocols.
Mountain House has hit its stride in the second half of the season, winning four of its last five to possibly give itself an outside shot of qualifying for the playoffs.
Hughson (6-3) at Ripon (6-3): Ripon can still earn a piece of the Trans-Valley League title with a win on Friday coupled with a Livingston upset of Escalon.
Either way, the result at Stouffer Field will have some effect on the Divisions V and VI playoffs — Ripon is projected at the 5 seed in D-V, while Hughson is third in D-VI. Since the Indians are reigning champions of Division V, there is no chance of them dropping down.
Both are coming off losses to traditional rivals. While Ripon struggled to get untracked in a 21-7 loss at Escalon, Hughson was blanked at Hilmar, 28-0.
Delhi (4-4) at Ripon Christian (6-3): The Knights remain hopeful to have their postseason ban lifted after applying for a temporary restraining order against the SJS. If they get their way, they’re the likely No. 1 seed in Division VII.
Either way, RC has a tough assignment for its Southern Athletic League finale. Delhi has vaulted itself into the conversation in Division VI with a surprising 56-38 win over Le Grand last week. The Knights have lost to Le Grand, 48-28.
WEEK 10 STANDINGS
VALLEY OAK LEAGUE
Central Catholic 5-0 8-1
Kimball 4-1 8-1
Manteca 3-2 7-2
Oakdale 3-2 6-2
East Union 2-3 5-4
Sierra 1-4 1-8
Weston Ranch 0-6 1-9
Kimball at East Union
Manteca at Oakdale
Central Catholic at Sierra
Weston Ranch bye
Escalon 5-0 8-1
Ripon 4-1 6-3
Hilmar 3-2 7-2
Livingston 3-2 6-3
Hughson 2-3 6-3
Modesto Christian 1-5 1-7
Riverbank 0-5 0-8
Hughson at Ripon
Livingston at Escalon
Hilmar at Riverbank
Modesto Christian bye
WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Grace Davis 6-0 9-0
Los Banos 4-1 4-4
Mountain House 4-2 4-5
Lathrop 3-2 5-3
Ceres 3-3 5-4
Pacheco 2-4 3-6
Johansen 0-4 1-7
Beyer 0-6 0-9
Lathrop at Mountain House
Grace Davis at Ceres
Pacheco at Los Banos
Beyer at Johansen
SOUTHERN ATHLETIC LEAGUE
Waterford 5-1 8-1
Mariposa 4-2 5-4
Ripon Christian 3-2 6-3
Le Grand 3-3 4-5
Gustine 3-3 3-5
Orestimba 3-3 5-4
Delhi 2-4 4-4
Denair 0-5 0-7
Delhi at Ripon Christian
Waterford at Denair
Le Grand at Mariposa
Gustine at Orestimba