Mark Paule Jr. burst onto the scene with seven touchdowns in a season-opening victory at Ripon High, and then never let off the gas.
In a few short weeks, the Sierra tailback watched his stock soar, upgrading from the pool of unknowns to the rarified air that belongs only to the state’s top producers.
“He was a known commodity after the third game,” Sierra coach Jeff Harbison said. “After our pre-league schedule, everyone knew who Mark Paule Jr. was. In a one-back offense, he was the main focal point. He was the one you had to stop.”
Truth be told, though, the junior had been cast for a starring role long before he chased down Sierra’s major rushing records and became the Manteca Bulletin’s 2014 All-Area Football Player of the Year.
Paule has been raised to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the game of the football by his father, Mark Sr. The two share couch space on holidays and Sundays and a lifting program in the offseason, and the younger Paule can talk fluently about some of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s marquee match-ups in recent years.
Even those for which he has no allegiance to.
The Paules were in the stands at the University of the Pacific the afternoon Merced and Vacaville played to a last-minute finish in the 2006 Division I final. That game featured college-caliber talent on both sides of the ball, precisely the reason why the Paules were in attendance.
“I grew up around football,” Junior says succinctly.
And now the game grows around him.
Paule emerged from relative obscurity this fall to set school records for rushing yards and touchdowns and led Sierra to a Valley Oak League co-championship with an array of outrageous games.
He finished with 2,024 yards and 45 total scores, 43 of which came on the ground. He had six 200-yard games, including a season-best 249 yards on 25 carries in a 55-20 rout of Kimball in their VOL opener on Sept. 26. It was the last of four consecutive 200-yard games to begin the season.
He had six games of at least four touchdowns and ranked among the state’s scoring leaders all season.
“I didn’t expect anything like that at the start of the season,” Paule Jr. said. “I knew we’d be a good team, but for myself, personally, I didn’t think I’d put up the numbers that I did.”
It helped that Sierra boasted a massive offensive line, anchored by junior Joshua Fala (6-foot-6, 335 pounds), and first-team all-league selections Lionel Valencia (6 -1) and Connor Melton (5-11, 215).
Sierra finished 10-2 for the second time in three seasons and reached the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs, losing to Rio Linda in a game decided in the final moments, 49-44.
The Timberwolves won their first seven games, many of them in such convincing fashion that games finished with a running clock.
“There was something special about that whole team and the whole season,” Paule said. “From the start, we were on fire. The linemen opened up the holes for me to find space and gave Devin (Nunez) time to throw the ball. Our wide receivers blocked down field. Everyone gave a full effort.”
Blessed with great vision and balance, Paule moved through defenses like a whisper, darting between tackles and into open space. Though he lacked the size of his contemporaries around the Valley Oak League, the 5-foot-7, 150-pounder showed remarkable strength and sturdiness.
He was a fall-forward type of running back who towed his share of would-be defenders.
“He had a good strength, coupled with a great eye and elusiveness. He’s an undersized guy,” Harbison said, “but he surprised some people with his fortitude. He was going to get his yards any way he could.”
“Watching him last year we saw a lot of potential,” he later added. “He surprised us with his output, but what we saw that we had not seen previously was that he had great patience and great vision.”
His father, ever the football historian, might say his son was Barry Sanders-esque, right down to the No. 20 jersey. The younger Paule appreciates the comparison – “My Dad’s favorite running back was Barry Sanders,” he says, “I’ve seen some of his highlights” – but likes to think he’s blazing his own trail.
“I think I’m creating my own style as I go,” he said, adding that his running style is rooted in one fundamental objective: survival. “Try not to get tackled.”
The challenge now is to build on those successes ... to get bigger, faster and stronger.
Paule’s recently resumed his lifting program and he may return to the Elite Training Academy, an outfit in Tracy that specializes in athletic training.
He is fueled by the few times he was shut down or slowed in 2014.
Paule had a season-low 56 yards and failed to score a touchdown for the first and only time all season in a disheartening defeat at Manteca.
In the season-ending loss to Rio Linda, Paule was limited to 82 yards, just the third time all season he didn’t eclipse the 100-yard plateau.
“I got to get better for next season,” he said. “I really need to do some studying up on what I can improve.”
What he won’t have is the luxury of a veteran offensive line – only Fala is slated to return – or the anonymity he enjoyed over the summer.
That’s OK, he says, keeping his foot on the proverbial pedal.
“We were happy with what we did this season. We were hungry. We wanted to go to state. We wanted to be section champions,” he said. “It didn’t happen for us, but we’re still hungry. We still want more.”