HANFORD - It’s a new era for Sierra Pacific football.
But the Golden Bears hope to continue their winning ways.
After former head coach Josh Kloster led Sierra Pacific to its best three-year stretch in school history, Dion Tate takes over as head coach, hoping to continue the momentum.
A former banker that went into teaching, Tate was an assistant at Sierra Pacific last season before applying for the job after Kloster’s resignation. It’s his first varsity head coaching job after more than 20 years of coaching.
“It’s been a long journey to get here,” Tate said. “But I want to make sure that the kids perform to the best of their abilities.”
While the team had advanced to at least the Central Section Div. VI semifinals during all of Kloster’s three seasons, Tate inherits a team that will mostly have to start fresh.
The Golden Bears lost 29 seniors from a team that went 8-5 in 2016 and advanced to the championship game of the Central Section Division VI playoffs.
Those losses included a pair of 1,000-yard running backs in Miguel Wharton and Gerod Magee. Wharton, who was the Sentinel’s 2016 football Player of the Year, is now at Humboldt St. on scholarship.
“You can’t replace a player like Miguel,” Tate said. “What you can hope for is that kids step up and fill their role to help overcome those losses.”
Tate believes that despite all those losses, the Golden Bears will still have enough firepower to make noise in the East Sequoia League and the Central Section Div. VI playoffs with a combination of experience and athletic newcomers. Strathmore, which won that Div. VI final, has also been elevated to Div. V while the Golden Bears stayed in Div. VI.
With Tate believing the team’s strength will be speed, he plans on simplifying schemes to allow players’ athleticism to come out.
“With so many new guys, you don’t want them to overthink things,” Tate said. “We want to just let the players play. We want them to just react. I think we’re going to cause people problems with our speed.”
On offense, Tate hopes to use that speed by spreading out the field and throwing more at an up-tempo pace.
While Sierra Pacific lost those two 1,000-yard backs, the team does return running back/receiver Phillips Jackson, who rushed for 984 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. He also led the team in receptions (23) and receiving yards (426).
Also returning is junior quarterback Will Springer, who quickly found success at the position last year in his first year playing organized football.
The Golden Bears started the 2016 season with Wharton at quarterback. With Wharton going down with an injury in just the third game of the season, Springer came in as the backup and did well enough to keep the spot and allow Wharton to return to running back, where he had rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a junior.
Throwing sparingly in a run-first offense, Springer, who was also the Sentinel’s baseball Player of the Year this past season, was 54-of-86 for 941 yards with 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions in nine games.
“He’s the real deal,” Tate said of Springer. “With a year under his belt now, he should have a really good season.”
Most of Sierra Pacific’s experience will come on the offensive and defensive lines.
Tate said the Golden Bears return four starters from last season, including Sammy Springer, Isaac Peralta, Abraham Campos and Jayven Contreas.
Peralta said that core of returners will make a difference as well as the team’s speed.
“That’s going to help us a lot,” he said. “We still have a lot more talent people might sleep on. Everyone here has been putting in the work and isn’t complaining.”
Receivers/defensive backs Jayson Littlejohn and Deshaun Littlejohn are expected to be key contributors, Tate said.
Tate is looking forward to seeing what the team will be able to do when it faces other teams.
“I think the biggest thing is you don’t know how they’ll react to adversity until they are actually in that situation,” Tate said. “With this group though, I think we’re going to surprise some people.”