Chris Johnson had to game plan for Sierra’s spread offense during his days as head coach for the Ripon High football team.
He’ll get another look at it this Friday, this time as Sierra’s coach. His Timberwolves (1-2) are heading to Lathrop’s Bennie Gatto Field in an intriguing nonleague contest pitting familiar foes that are working in new schemes.
Lathrop (0-2) now uses the same spread attack first implemented by Jeff Harbison, who led Sierra to eight postseason appearances, two Valley Oak League championships and a CIF State Bowl title in 12 years. Four former members of Harbison’s staff have joined head coach Joe Pirillo at Lathrop.
Sierra holds a 6-3 all-time series lead, but the Spartans — now in the Western Athletic Conference — have won the last three.
“It’s a good matchup for both schools,” Johnson said. “It should be an interesting matchup that could go either way. I have a lot of respect for what Joe does. He has done some good things.”
Like Lathrop with its spread, Sierra has produced mixed results with its newly-installed triple-option offense. Johnson previously ran variations of the Wing-T at Ripon and in his first year at Sierra, but he had to evolve with a drastic change in personnel. He knew his 2018 team would be young and dwarfed by the VOL’s giants in the trenches.
Both were evident in a 21-3 loss to still-unbeaten Modesto Christian. The T’wolves did rack up 270 yards of offense but failed to reach the end zone. Last week, they were held to 202 yards as Pacheco prevailed, 36-14.
The triple option was at its best in a 22-10 Week 1 win over Central Valley, however. Four different rushers scampered for 60 or more yards, and they combined for 351 and three touchdowns.
Stanley brothers Nick (116 yards, two TDs) and Kimoni (289 yards, two TDs) lead Sierra along with quarterback Shane Johnson (120 yards passing, 186 yards rushing, two TDs) and fullback Matt Dunham (84 yards, TD). Sierra starts only two seniors on offense and a sophomore (Kimoni Stanley).
“Everything in the offense runs through the quarterback, and he has to make split-second decisions,” coach Johnson said. “It’s starting to come together for us. It takes time and repetition, and there’s no way to replicate the speed of the game without playing the game.”
Lathrop has the benefit of coming off a bye week.
Pirillo said the Spartans have been able to add new wrinkles to the spread offense while taking the extra time to evaluate the talent in his program. Six sophomores are now playing varsity, and five of them were pulled up in the last two weeks.
Lathrop was routed by Manteca 64-14 in its season opener but had some good moments in the second half to build on. The following week, the Spartans outgained Kimball 471-285 but lost 27-26 as they were stymied by five turnovers.
“We’re very excited with the way things are going with the offense,” Pirillo said. “We understand that with a new offense it would take some time for it to start clicking on all cylinders. Basically, we have to eliminate those mistakes. If we do that we can be very explosive.”
The spread benefits dual-threat QBs such as Justin Manuel, and running backs can have success as defenses are forced to guard four receivers. Sebastian Iniguez has grinded out 230 yards and a touchdown, and sophomore call-up Isaac Ramos erupted for 181 yards and two scores — all in the second half — at Kimball.
There are much more than bragging rights on the line between these Manteca Unified rivals Friday night. For Lathrop, the only winless team in the area, it’s a chance to get some needed confidence before forging new rivalries in the WAC.
“It’s a huge game for us,” Pirillo said. “We need this one. We have to put it all together — offense defense and special teams — and get it in the right direction as we go into the WAC.”
Here’s a closer look at other Week 3 contests:
Vanden at East Union: It has been an up-and-down season so far for these 1-2 teams, and they're coming off stunning results on opposite ends of the spectrum.
After losses to Edison and North Coast Section power Rancho Cotate, Vanden upset SJS Division III semifinalist Christian Brothers, 26-10. East Union, meanwhile, botched a late three-score lead and lost to Bear Creek, 36-34.
Vanden, which has just one losing campaign in the last 10 years, has yet to score a point in the first half. The Vikings' spread-fly offense exploded in the second half of the Christian Brothers game behind a 176-yard, two-TD effort from running back Jordyn Bartley.
Corey Abrams has taken over at quarterback after returning junior Jonathan Brenes injured his wrist in Week 1. Jackson Forbes, a transfer from Nevada juggernaut Bishop Gorman who had five interceptions last year for the Vanden, leads the defense.
Tracy at Manteca: Old-school foes are reunited after the rivalry was rekindled from 2007-10, and Manteca took three out of the four matchups.
It's a must-win situation for the Buffaloes (1-2), who have dropped two straight for the first time since 2012. And it doesn't get any easier for the reigning SJS Division III champions, as they open league with Central Catholic and Oakdale.
They're surely not looking past Tracy (2-1), especially with the availability of running back Trabron Russell (ankle) and quarterback Ryan Ward in question. They sustained injuries in their 35-14 loss to Granada.
Logan Fife threw for 1,781 yards and 17 TDs and ran for 455 and five last year as quarterback of Tracy's triple-option offense, which also features 6-foot-2 receiver Trevion Shadrick Harris and running backs Elias Williams and Trevor Pope II. The Bulldogs lost to Turlock 28-17 in the annual “Battle for the Bone.”
Weston Ranch at Buhach Colony: The Cougars (1-1) got a shot of confidence last week with a lopsided 41-19 win at Franklin two weeks after getting shut out by Ripon in their season opener.
Not surprisingly, it was Amier Bowen who helped lead the charge, though from a new position. The converted quarterback played at running back, busting out for 207 yards and three TDs on 11 carries. Atlantis Gholston shined in his first start behind center, connecting for three TD passes.
Weston Ranch's road warriors — their first five games are in opposing stadiums — will be better tested by Buhach Colony (2-1). The Thunder was lambasted by Tracy 62-28 in Week 1 but has solid wins over Gregori and Edison under its belt. Tramayne Paster, a 6-2, 190-pound junior receiver/cornerback, is drawing interest from Division I programs.
Calaveras at Ripon: What a start for the 3-0 Indians.
Not only are they undefeated going into their showdown with a perennial Mother Lode League contender, but they nearly notched a third straight shutout before Central Valley ended that bid in the final minutes of a 42-7 blowout last week.
It was still another defensive gem nonetheless, and senior RB Derric Roy (seven rushes, 148 yards, three TDs) presented head coach Chris Musseman with another weapon in the pistol-wing offense after a breakthrough effort.
Calaveras (0-2) visits Stouffer Field seeking its first win of the season along with some revenge. Seeded second in the SJS Division V playoffs last year, Calaveras was upset by No. 7 Ripon 28-13 in the first round. Two-way standout Logan Weatherby is one of few returners from that team, as Calaveras reloads with a junior class that went 8-1-1 at the JV level.