As Sierra High School was rolling over its first four opponents with video-game ease, the question arose as to how the Timberwolves would react when they had to play a four-quarter game against a quality opponent.
And even Sierra coach Jeff Harbison might have harbored such doubts, all the way up until he walked into the locker room at halftime of Friday night’s game against Central Catholic.
“I looked in the eyes of the kids at halftime and they said it all,” Harbison said. “Their eyes said they were going to play four quarters of football.”
Sierra got a scoring pass from Devin Nunez to Hunter Johnson with 6:29 remaining, then stopped the Raiders’ final drive to seal a 17-14 victory in the first Valley Oak League meeting between the schools.
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Central Catholic (3-2 overall, 1-1 VOL) might have entered Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium at an emotional deficit, having been pushed to the limit in last week’s 29-28 overtime victory over Manteca.
On the other hand, Sierra (5-0, 2-0), having averaged better than 40 points in the first half of its first four games, had to deal with getting pushed back for the first time this season.
“They know that people were doubting them because they’ve read the remarks about how they hadn’t been tested,” Harbison said. “We got tested tonight, and we came out on top.”
Sierra fell behind for the first time this season when Central Catholic’s Justin Rice dived over from the 1 with 2:23 left in the third quarter, a run that capped a bruising 11-play, 84-yard drive.
Then, it was the Timberwolves’ turn to answer. A 51-yard pass from Devin Nunez to Hunter Johnson got Sierra out of the shade of its goal posts, and the pair teamed up again on the go-ahead score, a 7-yard swing pass that led to Johnson hurdling a tackler to score.
The Raiders, pinned back to the 10 after a holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff, went back on the attack with the methodical pace of a team knowing it would get only one chance to win. They converted a third and 14, then a fourth and 13, then a fourth and 2 that gave them a first down at the Sierra 31 with 36 seconds left.
And that’s where the drive stalled, as the final two passes thrown by Central Catholic quarterback Hunter Petlansky fell incomplete.
Mark Paule gave Sierra a 7-0 lead with 4:32 left in the first quarter on a 9-yard run. Paule was held to a season-low 92 yards on 19 carries, but he still became the first running back in the Sac-Joaquin Section to eclipse 1,000 yards this season. He has 1,001 yards and 23 scores through five games.
Central answered 58 seconds later when Petlansky found Jacob Days behind the Sierra secondary for a 60-yard score, but Sierra was able to take a 10-7 lead into halftime thanks to a 31-yard field goal by Marcos Castillo on the second play of the second quarter.
The Raiders ended up outgaining the Timberwolves 288-225 in the defensive battle, with Rice gaining 111 yards on 21 carries.
But after the game, all Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa could do as he stood at midfield was take off his cap and shake his head.
“You know, we get everybody’s best game,” he said.
As the new kid in the VOL, that’s going to be the case every week from now on.