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Standout returns from injury as Sierra eyes playoff berth
Sierra running back Anthony Cota picks up steam as Weston Ranch defender Demetrice Kelly looks to get in his way during Fridays Valley Oak League finale at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Just two days before Sierra’s Valley Oak League finale against visiting Weston Ranch Friday, star running back Anthony Cota was in street clothes at practice with a cast protecting his left forearm.

On Thursday he got the arm checked out, hoping that he would get cleared to play his first game since breaking it in a VOL opener at Oakdale on Sept. 23.

“The doctor looked at it and said it was good enough,” Cota said.

So was he.

With a protective pad wrapped around a brace on the arm, Cota rushed for 171 yards and four touchdowns on 27 carries in his grand return, leading Sierra’s 49-19 victory.

The Timberwolves (4-3, 5-5 overall) have a shot at making their fourth straight Sac-Joaquin Section playoff appearance. Weston Ranch (3-4, 4-6) was also in position to possibly qualify.

Sierra will find out tonight if it makes the cut for the postseason. There are several five-win squads on the bubble to make the top 64 in Divisions I-IV — Sierra is in Division III — and the Timberwolves will need help.

“We’re in wait-and-see mode,” Sierra coach Jeff Harbison said. “(Today) we’ll know for sure if we’re in and we’ll hope for the best. If this is our last game of the season I’m proud of what our seniors did. They came out and played tough, and it was nice to be able to get everybody in.”

Cota was glad to be one of them.

“(Watching from the sidelines) was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Cota said. “I always wanted to be out there. Football is my life, it’s what I do.”

Senior quarterback Anthony Perea made the most of his five pass attempts for Sierra, completing four of them for 166 yards and two second-half scores spanning 80 and 78 yards to Jordan Lewis (two receptions, 82 yards) and Zach Penirian (3-119), respectively.

Tyler Clark also contributed to the air attack, hitting Penirian for a 35-yard strike on a halfback toss that set up Cota’s 1-yard TD run for a 14-13 Sierra lead midway through the second quarter.

That was the only lead change of the game, as Clark came through with another big play on the ensuing kickoff by recovering a fumble. It was the first of four turnovers forced by the Timberwolves, and it helped change the tide after Weston Ranch (3-4, 4-6) had started off nicely with two long scoring drives.

Sierra piled up 501 yards of offense, 300 from the ground. The Cougars amassed 424 (226 rushing), but the Timberwolves tightened up defensively in the second half.

Weston Ranch’s final points came with 5:34 left in the contest when James Simerly (12 of 22, 198 yards) hooked up with Alex Esan for a 57-yard score. That made it 42-19 after the conversion pass was picked off by Devin Manaois.

Linebacker Austin Acker (four tackles for losses, sack) had a big game for Sierra, and cornerback Kayson Matela intercepted two passes.

“We made a few adjustments and added a few different blitzes and stunts,” Harbison said. “In the first half it was kind of nerve-wracking (defending) the run. We put it together and (the changes) worked out for the most part.”

Weston Ranch’s opening possession was impressive. It marched 75 yards on 11 plays in 5 minutes, 27 seconds, and lineman-turned-fullback Willie Cervantes punched it in from 4 yards out.

Sierra answered with its own time-consuming series that lasted 14 plays, 65 yards and 5:22 and was capped by a 2-yard plunge from Cota.

The Cougars did well to retake the lead on the following drive. They got as far as the Sierra 36 until Tremain Buntan was dropped for a 4-yard loss. The standout senior back injured an ankle on the play and missed the rest of the contest.

Weston Ranch was then flagged for five straight false-start penalties. On third-and-35, Simerly found Darryl Crowder up the middle for a 32-yard gain, and then on fourth down Donnell Simms (14 rushes, 86 yards) scored from 28 yards out on a well-executed counter toss.

But that was the beginning of the end for the Cougars, who were penalized 16 times for 87 yards. Twelve of those were pre-snap infractions. Self-inflicted mistakes have been Weston Ranch’s bug-a-boo in a season in which it hung with top teams before melting down.

 “We’re a physical team with a lot of good athletes, but winning is a mentality,” Weston Ranch coach Mike Hale said. “I think we made some strides this season and definitely proved that we can play with anybody, we just have to continue to believe that we can get it done. We finished 4-6 but we could have just as easily been 7-3.”

Losing Buntan for the final 2 ½ quarters didn’t help either. He had rushed for 79 yards on just seven attempts.

“That took a big piece of our running game away from us,” Hale said.