STOCKTON — John Ward doesn’t have fond memories of Sierra.
The Chavez head coach is 0-2 against the Timberwolves the past two seasons, but it was during a summer camp at Stagg High — where Ward is holding practices for the North team this week in preparation for Saturday’s Lions All-Star Football Game — that he began to take notice. One player in particular stood out: Hunter Johnson, a sure-handed and physical 6-foot-4 receiver.
“I remember him as a junior at camp, and he was kind of the guy who hurt us,” Ward said.
That was just the beginning.
Chavez traveled to Sierra’s Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium for a non-league contest, and it turned out to be one of 2013’s most memorable slugfests in San Joaquin County. Sierra escaped with a wild 61-58 victory thanks to a last-second field goal, and Johnson (seven catches, 87 yards, two touchdowns) was one of the many stars of the night.
The rematch was far less competitive last fall: Sierra 63, Chavez 24.
Both teams went on to claim league championships, with Chavez winning outright in the San Joaquin Athletic Association and Sierra splitting the title with Oakdale in the competitive Valley Oak League.
“They annihilated us pretty good,” Ward said.
He’s glad to have a trio of Timberwolves on his side, even if it’s just for a week. Johnson is one of his big targets — and blockers — on the offensive end, while defensive end/outside linebacker L.J. Alofaituli and middle linebacker Trevon McCray shore up the defense. Only Sac-Joaquin Section Division I finalist Tracy has more players represented on the North team with five.
For Johnson, it will be his last football game. The VOL and Manteca Bulletin co-MVP for basketball will continue his career on the hardwood at Cal Maritime Academy after signing to the Vallejo-based school in April. Johnson set a new single-season record at Sierra with 12 touchdown receptions as a junior, and in 2014 he led Sierra pass catchers with 716 yards and nine TDs on 38 snags.
“I’ve been reading all year about some of the great receivers in the area, and to be here with some of the best athletes in the area is amazing,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty tough to realize it (will be his last football game). I’m definitely going to miss playing all three sports and getting to hang out with a bunch of different guys, but I think it will benefit me being able to focus on just one sport.”
All Johnson did during his senior year was win. He was part of three league championship teams, including basketball and baseball. He also led the basketball squad to its first-ever SJS Division III crown. And he aims to go out a winner and continue the North’s recent stretch of dominance. Last year’s game ended in a 21-21 tie, but the North has won eight of the last 11 and is 24-15-2 all-time.
“I’m just going to do whatever I can for the team,” Johnson said. “If I get the ball I get the ball, and if I don’t I’m going to be blocking. You have to make the most of it.”
Alofaituli and McCray will do the same on the defensive side, where they are joined by Manteca nose tackle Steven Martinez and Lathrop backer Hawaii Leafa Teo.
“McCray and L.J. are great kids,” Ward said. “They do what we ask of them and it’s always, ‘Yes, coach.’ They’re definitely players.
“It’s fun getting to coach them because they’re very open-minded. They’re willing to learn our defense and they’ll get to use their athleticism.”
Alofaituli (50 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six pass deflections) and McCray (80 tackles, 18 for losses, 6.0 sacks, five forced fumbles) were the leaders of Sierra’s hard-hitting defense. McCray was also named Defensive Player of the Year in the VOL.
Alofaituli said the overall experience of the week is what he’ll relish the most. North players have had the opportunity to bond outside of the football field, getting to bunk up in the dorms at the University of the Pacific. They also had a team dinner in Linden on Tuesday, and on Wednesday they attended the Stockton Ports game.
“It’s a blessing, first of all, for all the players here,” said Alofaituli, who hopes to play for Adams State in Colorado next year. “It gives us another opportunity to play our last game in high school. It’s a good experience and real fun, it’s not just all about football.
“It’s nice to be able to play with them one more time and it’s great to meet other people, too. We all have the same dream and we get to share it. That’s the good thing about football. It brings rivals together; it’s not just about fighting it out on the football field.”