Chris Johnson has often repeated the “one game at a time” mantra in this his second season as head coach for the rebuilding Sierra football team.
East Union coach Willie Herrera is focused on the opening quarter for his Lancers’ Valley Oak League contest with Johnson and the Timberwolves Friday at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.
It’s understandable why.
East Union started the season with high hopes with a slew of its talent returning, but at 2-5 it’s in danger of missing out on a third straight postseason berth. A tough nonleague schedule, in which the Lancers won one of four, is in part to blame, but a rash of injuries to key athletes have taken their toll.
“It has been one of those seasons,” Herrera said.
Both Sierra (1-2 VOL, 3-4 overall) and East Union, also 1-2 in league, are on the bubble for Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berths. League champions earn automatic entry, while the rest of the 78-team field is filled by at-large qualifiers according to CalPreps rankings.
Sierra and East Union are ranked ninth and 11th, respectively, in Division IV. Divisions I-VI consist of 12 teams each, while six are in the Division VII bracket.
The two rivals end the regular season with winless Weston Ranch and Manteca, the reigning SJS Division III champion. Teams are also required to get at least four overall wins to advance, so the Lancers have some work to do.
“We’re not even looking at that,” Herrera said. “We are taking it one quarter at a time. What we’re telling our guys is there are 12 quarters of guaranteed football left as a team, and what you do with those quarters can lead you to the next step. But it all starts with the first quarter on Friday.”
What was a position of strength and depth has thinned out in recent weeks for the Lancers. Two of their top players from the backfield are expected to return. Leading rusher Raylen Carter injured a knee in the second quarter of East Union’s homecoming win over Kimball on Sept. 21, and in the same game RB/LB Alex Alexander dislocated a shoulder.
The Lancers were already minus hard-running Leo Bonilla, who has been out a month. He and Shane Crawford, who went down against Central Catholic two weeks ago, are game-time decisions with knee ailments. Additionally, running back Tealen Gaines moved to Las Vegas after the Kimball win.
East Union’s depth has been tested in several other areas. Defensive lineman Thomas Cann suffered an ACL tear during the first month of the season and is out for the year.
The Lancers are coming off their bye week, which Herrera called “absolutely crucial.”
“It gave us a chance to breathe after all these injuries,” Herrera said. “Obviously, these guys want to play in these intra-city games, but we have to make sure to be careful with them.
“It doesn’t matter if a team is coming into it undefeated or with no wins — these are always big games.”
Sierra has also had its share of injuries. Quarterback Shane Johnson missed last week’s loss to Oakdale after suffering a concussion against Central Catholic, and RB/LB Matt Dunham continues to work his way back from an ankle injury that forced him to miss four games.
Sierra leads the all-time series 17-6 but lost last year’s grudge match 41-17 after winning the previous 13.
In other Week 8 action:
Weston Ranch at Manteca: Ranked No. 3 in Division III by CalPreps, Manteca (2-1, 4-3) has a chance to roll into the postseason with a four-game winning streak.
The Buffaloes overcame some sloppy play and penalties in a 41-13 win at Kimball. They’ll look to clean it up against a Weston Ranch team (0-7) that averages just 8.8 points in its six losses. The Cougars’ lone win over Franklin has been declared a forfeit.
Ripon at Escalon: It’s one of two marquee matchups in the Trans-Valley League, the other pitting Hilmar and undefeated Modesto Christian in a rematch of their SJS Division VI final.
Ripon, also unbeaten, will be too busy to scoreboard watch. The Indians will have their hands full against a hungry Escalon squad (1-2, 5-2) that dropped heartbreaking losses to both Hilmar (20-17 in OT) and Modesto Christian (7-6).
The Cougars have three stud underclassmen in Kaden Christensen, Colton Panero and Luke Anderson who lead their physical Wing-T attack. As if they needed any more motivation, they’ve lost three in a row to longtime rival Ripon and five of the last six.
Ripon is currently the top-ranked team in Division V.
Mariposa at Ripon Christian: The outright Southern League crown is within reach for Ripon Christian (4-0, 7-0) with its toughest opponents in the rear-view mirror.
The Knights’ final three foes own a combined 4-17 record. Mariposa (1-3, 2-5), a former SL powerhouse, is in the middle of a rough patch. The Grizzlies’ most competitive loss in league was against Gustine, 17-13, a team Ripon Christian just routed, 49-0.
Ripon Christian is ranked No. 1 in Division VII, but if it takes care of business the next three weeks the Knights will get bumped up for earning the sole possession of a title in a Division VI league.
Johansen at Lathrop: Ranked 18th in Division V, Lathrop (2-2, 2-5) will likely have to win out in Western Athletic Conference play to have a shot at sneaking into the postseason.
With Los Banos (3-1, 4-3) and undefeated Mountain House ahead, a win is a must on Friday. Johansen (1-3, 2-5) lost 47-12 to Los Banos last week, while the Spartans look to bounce back from a 55-28 defeat against Grace Davis.