Greg Leland’s first order of business after taking over for Vern Gebhardt as Sierra High’s Dean of Athletics was finding his replacement as head football coach.
He didn’t go far to make the selection.
While the Timberwolves had some successful years and talented teams under Leland (1995-2004) they never made the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. Much of that had to do with the overall might of the Valley Oak League, which then included traditional monsters Los Banos, Tracy and Sonora. It was even tougher for Leland’s T’Wolves to make the playoffs because the VOL only had two to three qualifiers per season.
So who would be the one to propel the program to new heights?
Jeff Harbison, of course.
If you didn’t know him then, you know a little more about him now. A man who prefers the shadows over the spotlight, Haribson has led Sierra to seven postseason appearances in the last eight years, and on Saturday the school will take part in its first-ever SJS football final at Elk Grove High, where the third-seeded Timberwolves (7-5) encounter No. 4 Liberty Ranch (8-4) for the Division IV championship.
Harbison previously served as sophomore coach for three years before taking over as varsity defensive coordinator in Leland’s final season.
“My first hire as athletic director was Jeff Harbison,” Leland said. “He had only coached one year for me (at the varsity level) and there were seven or eight guys who applied with varsity football head coaching experience.
“In a sense, I knew Jeff and I had a pretty good feeling of what kind of job he would do for us. The first year was kind of a tough year, but I’ll tell you what, I am proud of him and the program and where it has come. We’ve had some pretty good teams that have played in some tough leagues and tough divisions, and to finally be able to play for a section championship is exciting.”
Harbison accepts little credit, however. He has adopted an “it’s a ‘we’ thing, not a ‘me’ thing” mantra to develop a culture of unselfishness. He insists there are no ranks or titles among the coaches because they each provide valuable input in the game plan.
“It isn’t a singular thing,” Harbison said. “There are five other coaches here who are busting their tail every day. We don’t have coordinators because everybody has a say in what we’re doing. It’s really important to me that that remains. It’s a team game, and it goes for the coaches as well.”
It’s a unique dynamic that works well for the program, said Ryan Teicheira, a 2001 Sierra graduate who is in his sixth year as an assistant coach for the varsity squad. He now calls the plays for the offense, a role previously held by Jeff Abrew.
“Abrew did a great job and he’s been a mentor for me,” Teicheira said. “I looked back at all the stats and I was like, ‘How am I going to duplicate what he has done?’”
As Harbison would say, “it’s not a ‘me’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing.”
“The thing is, it wasn’t just about what Abrew wanted to do,” Teicheira added. “He would ask the rest of us for our opinion. This year with new coaches it’s the same atmosphere. Harbison and I met in the offseason to talk about how what direction we wanted to take the offense, and I want all of them to be involved. It’s the same system. We haven’t changed anything.”
Players and coaches have come and gone in Harbison’s 11 years, but two things have remain constant: Harbison and the system. Throw in a third constant: winning. Sierra hasn’t had a losing season since a 3-7 finish in Harbison’s first season. The 2006 team went 5-5, and it was in 2007 that Harbison introduced elements of program’s prolific spread offense.
“My first year we ran something very similar to what we had run previously, a wing offense, because I didn’t want to come in and shock the kids,” Harbison said. “It was a 2 ½-year transition into fully going into the spread.
“I was watching college football one day and I really liked how Troy State was spreading the ball around and running screens. We felt that with our personnel it would be a great fit, so the next year we studied up on it and began implementing it. We found some success with it.”
The 2007 squad went 6-4 behind the accurate arm of quarterback in Mike Garcia, and his top two receivers, Nigel Malone (Kansas State) and Avery White (Sacramento State), went on to play at the NCAA Division I level.
With the spread offense fully installed, Sierra qualified for the playoffs for the first time the following year with a 9-3 record and hasn’t looked back since. Quarterback Ryan Flores threw for more than 1,000 yards and rushed for over 1,000 more that season, and in 2009 5-foot-6 Jonathan Davis and outstanding running back Jarrod Daniels led Sierra to a share of its first VOL title while reaching the SJS Division III semifinals.
Although the system has remained unchanged, the identity of each team is altered from year to year. The Timberwolves have had proficient running backs such as Anthony Cota and Mark Paule Jr., who shattered program records with 2,024 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns last year. In 2013, Jake Pruitt (3,260 yards, 38 touchdowns) became the program’s all-time passing leader with help from record-setting receivers Lucas Widmer (1,012 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Hunter Johnson (878 yards, 12 touchdowns).
First-year junior quarterback Mark Vicente (2,069 passing yards, 16 touchdowns; nine rushing TDs) is the new face behind center and the offense continues to produce. He had little prior experience with the position, as he decided to give it a shot for the sophomore team late last season.
“The important thing with running a system is to have the same terminology and same plays at the freshman level and up to the sophomore and varsity levels,” Harbison said. “It’s an offense that allows you to adapt to what you have. If you have the quarterback and the receivers you can throw it. If you have a mobile quarterback you run more read-option plays. If you have the running back you spread out defenses and allow him to run the ball.”
The spread offense has added a new style of play to the traditionally run-oriented VOL, which had long been ruled by the likes of Oakdale and Manteca. Coaches from both teams have given Harbison and the Timberwolves their due. Last year, Oakdale’s Trent Merzon called Sierra “the best kept secret in the Valley,” and earlier this season Eric Reis of Manteca acknowledged that the Timberwolves helped change the way his team approaches their defense, placing more emphasis on speed over size and strength.
Under Harbison, Sierra has joined Oakdale and Manteca — along with Central Catholic, which replaced Sonora (now in the Mother Lode League) in the VOL last season — among the top teams in the VOL. Still, there is one thing all of those teams have achieved that Sierra has not ...
“It’s all nice to hear,” Harbison said, “but the one thing lacking on our part is that section pennant.”