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Sierra Pacific came one game short of ultimate glory last season when they fell in the CIF Central Section Division VI championship game. The goal this year is to get back and win it this time.

“I wanna win it all,” Sierra Pacific coach Dion Tate said. “If [a coach] says he doesn’t wanna win it all, he’s lying.”

The Golden Bears made a Cinderella run in the playoffs as the No. 6 seed and upset the No. 3 and 2 seeds before finally falling to No. 1 Strathmore 42-12. The loss now serves as motivation.

“You can ask my wife, I can honestly say I’ve put that film on two, three times a week and I watch for hours,” Tate said. “Looking at where we went wrong, where I went wrong as a head coach, the mistakes the things that I see now that I didn’t see during that game.”

Sierra Pacific was 7-6 and 3-3 in the East Sequoia League in 2018 — tied for third place with Lindsay. This season coach said he wants to be in the mix for the league title, especially with the return of key pieces on offense.

Quarterback Chad Leslie will lead the offense again with running back Adam Antuna, who rushed for a team-high 827 yards last season. Gavin Gamble led all players with 15 touchdowns for the Golden Bears and is returning as a wingback.

“We’re not really rebuilding we’re reloading because we have all the keys to get there,” Gamble said. “We only lost a couple guys and we have a lot of returners so we’re set to have a big year.”

Safety Anthony Bursiaga made the second-most tackles (104) on the team last year and will anchor the defense. Linebacker Ruben Rodriguez (86 tackles) will also return as well as Andrew Lehner who was second with seven sacks.

“One of things I really want to focus on this year is just coming into league hitting on all cylinders,” Tate said. “Last year we had a young quarterback, we had a young running back in Adam Antuna. This year I want them to pick up where they left off.”

The team did lose one key piece in 6-foot-4-inch wide receiver Jayson Littlejohn. He was the only receiver to catch over 1,000 yards last season. The hole he leaves in the offense is going to be filled with a bruising running game.

Tate’s idea is to use a speedy backfield to hit the edge and stretch defenses laterally. In the past they stretched defenses with their passing game, but this year the opposite will be true with their running game being the key to the offense.

The defense was the biggest reason the team was able to make it to the Valley championship game by limiting opponents to 24.7 points per game. They kept the team in nearly every game and gave them a chance to win.

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“We’re looking to stop the offense and give our offense the ball as much as possible and give them as much opportunity to score as we can,” Bursiaga said.

Tate doesn’t want to rely on his defense as much as they did and hopes his offense will be able to control the clock. He also said he’s not underestimating any team this season, something he admits he felt like he did last year.

“My philosophy this year is one play at a time, one game at a time,” Tate said. “I don’t want to get up caught up in what we almost did last year.”

But his players have their eyes set on the big prize. “It’s Valley or nothing at this point so we gotta get back there and win it all,” Gamble said.

“It’s definitely a big motivation for us seniors since it’s our last year,” Bursiaga said about the Valley loss. “It’s go big or go home and we all want that ring.”

Sierra Pacific opens the season with a bye week and then has its first game on Aug. 30 against Reedley at 7:15 p.m. at the Neighbor Bowl. The Golden Bears opened the season against the Pirates in 2018 and lost 21-12.

Player to watch

Gavin Gamble is poised to have a big offensive year after leading his team with 15 touchdowns (10 receiving, 4 rushing, 1 interception) last season. He was also second in total yards with 1,401.

“He’s faster, he’s bigger, he’s stronger,” Tate said. “He can run the ball and be a part of the passing game.”

The senior running back and defensive back was second on the team with 795 receiving yards and third with 320 rushing yards. Gamble was also a factor on the defensive side of the ball with 46 tackles and an interception.

“I just wanna have a big year and help my team win,” Gamble said.

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Noe Garcia can be reached at (559) 583-2431 or ngarcia@hanfordsentinel.com. Follow Noe on Twitter at @noecarlosgarcia.

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