HANFORD — Despite losing their starting quarterback and leading touchdown scorer, Sierra Pacific is staying the course and, more importantly, staying confident.
“My expectations are to win it all this year,” Dion Tate said. “We've got a lot of returning players. I’m not accepting any excuses this year. Last year, they came in and were learning a new system.”
Tate, entering his second year as the Sierra Pacific head coach, said he already sees strides in this year’s team, from understanding the offense at a higher level to being more aggressive on defense, but most notably the team chemistry.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed about this group, they’re more of a team than last year,” Tate said. “They really believe in each other … They’re not selfish.”
The Golden Bears will need that early on as they try to replace former starting quarterback Will Springer who passed for just over 2,400 yards last season and 18 touchdowns. Springer decided to focus on baseball this year.
Wide receiver Deshaun Littlejohn, who far and away led the team with 12 touchdowns, is currently not with the team. Tate declined to elaborate as to the reason why, but he’s not expected to play this season.
But the mentality has been next man up for the Golden Bears and the next quarterback up is sophomore Chad Leslie. The southpaw was lauded by Tate as having a strong arm, quick to learn the system and respected by his teammates.
“I’m excited for it,” Leslie said. “It’s a little nerve-wracking having to step up and take that role as a sophomore, but I’m looking forward to it and everyone taking my lead and pushing through.”
He put multiple passes on a dime at Monday's practice and looked comfortable with his receiving corps as well as handing off the ball to both sides. He said he’s been picking up the offense well and learning reads more as he progresses. His biggest goal for 2018 is reaching 2,000 passing yards.
The team will also lean on some key returners in seniors Jayson Littlejohn, Connor Chennault and Matt Alfaro. Jayson was the All-East Sequoia League offensive player of the year after leading his team with 60 catches and 764 yards with four touchdowns.
The experience the three bring is something Tate yearns for. He called Jayson another coach on the field with the three years of varsity experience he brings to the field.
“It helps the team a lot because we have people that could lead other players, the younger players that don’t know what it takes to be on varsity,” Littlejohn said. “We have a lot more experience, especially from the sophomores from last year. They’re coming up so they know what to expect this year.”
The ball will still find Jayson, but Tate wants to be more balanced this year on offense. The run game wasn’t where he wanted it to be last year, but with a couple of easier reads installed for Leslie, the run game should be utilized at a higher rate.
Matt Alfaro took over the role of starting running back midway through last season and flourished as he finished with 376 rushing yards and an average of four yards per carry.
“I just hope I carry the same leadership I did at the end of that season,” Alfaro said. “We had a big loss last year. Phillip left and I had to be someone else that they could look up to. It’s a big spot to take care of and I want to be the same leader I was last year for the team this year.”
The run game will also have the advantage of returning three offensive linemen. Although they’re not big, they’re combating size issues with physicality and speed. It’s the same thing on defense. And Tate has one plan for them.
“Oh, we’re blitzing,” Tate said. “We’re bringing the heat. We are bringing the heat this year.”
Senior linebacker Connor Chennault had 33 tackles last season and will try and vault the defense to an elite level after the Golden Bears graduated three of their top four tacklers. Chennault was working hard at practice and recognized how the team is coming together.
“Nothing’s easy. We’re hustling all the time,” Chennault said. “This year you can see before the game’s even started us bonding more as a team than we did last year. No bickering, no one’s higher than the other person.”
The confidence couldn’t be any higher for a team coming off a 4-7 season and 3-2 East Sequoia League record. Their season ended in a 67-26 loss to Rosamond in the CIF Central Section Division VI opening round.
Now, they feel more experienced and ready to roll as the season draws closer every day. The Golden Bears’ season opener is a road game against Reedley on Aug. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
“I just want to get to Valley,” Alfaro said. “I just want to win every game we can. Max I want to lose is two. I just want to get to Valley and hopefully go to state.”