Postseason appearances haven’t come around too often in East Union’s 50-year history, so sixth-year head coach Willie Herrera is understandably estatic to prepare his troops for Thursday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division III opener against fourth-seeded Del Campo (5-5).
“People have been asking me if I’m worried about our seed,” he said. “It would be a great to host a playoff game, but we’re excited for this opportunity. We just have to make the most of it.”
The good news for the 13th-seeded Lancers (6-4) is that Del Oro isn’t in this bracket. Their last three playoff losses (2010, 1992, 1989) all came at the talons of the highly-successful Golden Eagles. In 1989, East Union lost 29-22 to Del Oro in the Division II championship game.
The Lancers’ last postseason victory came on Nov. 20, 1992. They won their final two Valley Oak League games against Oakdale and Manteca to sneak in before stunning Capital Athletic League champion Dixon on the road, 27-7.
This year’s Lancers are coming off back-to-back losses to Central Catholic and Manteca, which finished with a three-way share of the VOL crown along with Oakdale. Manteca and Oakdale are the top-seeded teams in Divisions IV and III, respectively. Central Catholic is fifth in the competitive Division II bracket, while reigning CIF State Division IV-A champion is third in Division IV.
“We started off well against Central Catholic and Manteca,” Herrera said. “The kids know they can have some success against those types of teams. There’s not that ‘oh wow’ factor, it’s more of a ‘bring it on’ attitude.’
“If we can just put together four quarters I like us against anybody.”
The Lancers are up against a program that is no stranger to postseason success. Del Campo is making its 13th playoff appearance in 14 seasons and won the Division III banner in 2009, beating Sierra 39-10 in the semifinals.
This first-round match-up pits two teams that placed fifth in tough leagues. Del Campo’s 5-5 record is misleading. Four of the Cougars’ losses were to Capital Valley Conference opponents, among them a close 31-29 setback against unbeaten Antelope. They started the season with a 26-21 win over Merced, the No. 5 seed in Division III.
Del Campo is one of just six teams to qualify for the SJS playoffs with a .500 record.
“They’re a 5-5 team but a No. 4 seed — that tells you something right there,” Herrera said. “They played some really good competition. They definitely got respect from the committee that puts that stuff together.”
Del Campo feeds off of its punishing running game led by Greg Cabral, who burned Merced for 358 yards and three touchdowns. Paving the way are gargantuan linemen such as 6-foot-5, 329-pound senior guard Stephan Poe.
Herrera said the Lancers are up for the challenge.
“We’ve had such a great week of practice,” he said. “(Tuesday) was hands down the best practice we’ve had all year in terms of energy level, the tempo and the sense of urgency was magnificent. For our guys it’s not good enough for them just to be here. They want to compete and get it done. If it doesn’t turn out our way it’s not because of the effort. If we can play with that fire and intensity we’ll be OK.”