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Charting heartache & history
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My football clipboard has seen a lot.

While I utilize multiple clipboards throughout the sports year, football gets its own special clipboard. It is actually two taped together that are in various stages of disrepair.

It has seen excitement and blowouts, heartache and thrills. Probably the most exciting game it held my notes for was when Weston Ranch defeated Sonora in overtime at Dunlavy Field. The lede for my story that night was, “And the band was silent.” Only if you have been to a game at Sonora would you truly understand the significance of that statement.

It has seen its share of heartache, as well. Two games in particular come to mind. First was when an undefeated Tracy team marched into the playoffs and hosted a much-lower seeded Los Banos team and lost. There was no way that was supposed to happen. The other was more recently when Manteca battled Enterprise of Redding in a NorCal Bowl game and lost when the game could have – and probably should have – gone the other way. That was just a bad night all the way around.

But this year, my clipboard gets to add another moniker to its identifiers – historic. It witnessed history two weeks ago when Sierra pulverized Calaveras on the road for the first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section football championship for the Timberwolves and was on hand when Sierra took to the road again and held off perennial North Section powerhouse Sutter to become the first team from the City of Manteca to win a NorCal football game and as a result will play in a state championship game on Saturday in Chowchilla.

But how did Sierra get this far? I get questions around town as to how a fifth-place team in the Valley Oak League could be playing for anything, much less a state championship. For those who do not understand how things are lined out, that is an understandable question. For those who know the system darned good and well and ask anyway – sometimes to the point of belaboring – shame on them.

The SJS playoffs have evolved over time. Ever since I can remember, playoff eligibility and seeding were determined by where a team finished in league and the team’s league itself. Some leagues had two playoff slots, others three – and the league was designated to a division – with the Valley Oak League bouncing around between different divisions over the years.

There were a number of teams that were playoff worthy and stayed home Week 11 because their leagues were so tough that a 6-4 or maybe even 7-3 finish did not place high enough. So the SJS revamped the playoff plan to include 72 schools distributed over six divisions – the two smallest leagues form a six-team Division VII bracket. There are automatic qualifiers to the playoffs – two, three or four per league – and the rest of the slots are determined by overall record. A 6-4 finish is normally the playoff threshold, although some years 6-4 teams have not made the playoffs.

This year that threshold dipped to 5-5, and the final cutoff among those teams was determined by strength of schedule – opponents’ losses. Between the tough VOL and their non-league schedule, the Timberwolves claimed the last playoff spot – No. 72.

With few exceptions, the teams are then partitioned by division with respect to enrollment. Sierra and Lathrop were tapped for Division IV while other VOL schools Manteca, Central Catholic and Oakdale were bigger and ended up in Division III. While not bigger, Central Catholic won the VOL and that is designated a Division III league so the Raiders were bumped to Division III.

As expected, Central Catholic chewed up the Division III bracket and will again be going to a state bowl game. As late as halftime of week 10, however, the Timberwolves had no expectations. Entering its regular-season finale tied for fifth with Weston Ranch, Sierra trailed by two touchdowns at halftime to an exuberant Cougars squad. Maybe a little too exuberant. Whatever the reason, the Timberwolves exploded for 21 second-half points while shutting out Weston Ranch to finish with a record just good enough to qualify for the playoffs.

More than once when interviewing Sierra players after the last few games, the mantra has been the same – defense wins championships. The Timberwolves have given up no defensive touchdowns in the last two games, crushing two potent attacks.

So now you know the why of how Sierra made history and is looking to do so again. While a book could be filled with athletic clichés, the Timberwolves fit the dictionary definition of “peaking at the right time.”

Let’s just hope that when I put my clipboard away after Saturday, it has a smile on its face.


To reach Dave Campbell email