Sonora football and playoffs are words used almost every year to describe the Wildcats, except for the last two. For consecutive seasons, the Wildcats have finishes 4-6 and watched postseason from the outside looking in, something that doesn't sit well with head coach Bryan Craig and his staff.
"We have to get back to playoffs, it's unacceptable not to be in the playoffs," Craig said. "It's an automatic here, that's what we do. We play good football and we get ourselves into the playoffs. All of us, including the players and coaching staff, we all worked hard in the offseason to get ourselves ready."
And to reach postseason, the Wildcat brass has put together a preseason schedule worthy of a champion beginning with Friday's tilt against longtime arch-rival, and host, Oakdale. The gauntlet also includes Lodi of Division 1 and two fellow Division 4 behemoths Ripon, a section semifinalist, and Hilmar, the section runner-up.
"We believe that we're gonna get better by playing tougher competition," Craig said. "We could put four teams in there and be 4-0 heading into the Mother Lode League, and then win two games and go to the playoffs. But then what, go out in Round 1? That's not good enough for us. We want to be a section title team. And I think to be that team, we need to play a tough schedule. We can't play patsies and get there. We're not getting better unless we're challenging ourselves."
After those first four games, Craig feels the Wildcats will be ready for their new conference, the MLL. But win the new league or not, Sonora wants to be playing well after the regular season is complete.
"We'd love to win the MLL, but getting into playoffs is our goal and going to deep into the playoffs, including a section title if possible," Craig said. "We want to win it all."
Sonora co-offensive coordinator Kirk Clifton can't hide his smile when discussing the weapons at his disposal. Clifton went from quarterback, to running backs to receivers and then to the line, praising each for their combined performance at Saturday's scrimmage against Manteca, Grace Davis, Atwater.
"We competed and we competed against much larger schools and I think we fared pretty well," Clifton said. "We executed offensively better than I anticipated. In all, I felt like we got better so I was pretty happy with it."
His happiness starts with junior dual-threat quarterback Sammy Page (5-9, 165). The shifty left-handed thrower can be dangerous with the ball in his hands, throwing and running. He won the starting job this summer and was voted by his teammates as one of four captains, and the only junior leader.
"I've got high hopes for Sammy," Clifton said. "There's always room for improvement, but he played really well."
"He went through a little bit of growing pains as a junior taking over, he's a little anxious sometimes," Craig said. "But he's a very athletic and smart kid that's a leader. He takes charge in the huddle and the kids want to play with him and hard for him. So I'm happy to have him there. And he gives us a dual threat. He throws the ball pretty well and he runs the ball pretty well."
After the snap, Page's first decision will be to give, or not to give. And when he gives, he will hand off to fellow team captain senior fullback Serge Kiriluk (5-10, 220). Kiriluk, a bruising back, scored six touchdowns in the final four games of last season. Almost half of his carries (14) went for scores. He finished with 92 yards.
Kiriluk is also Sonora's backup quarterback.
"It wouldn't bother me one bit if Billy had to come in and play quarterback, it wouldn't phase me," Clifton said. "We wouldn't change the offense at all, he's just a really good natural athlete."
When Kiriluk is out, in comes another captain, Lane Mierop (5-9, 180) and sophomore upstart Bradley Canepa (5-8, 220) will also get his share of carries.
"Billy (Serge) runs with a forward lean, he slides, has great vision and one guy is not going to tackle him," Clifton said. "He's gonna wear on defense. Lane runs like he's 210 pounds and Bradley is 220 and he just runs angry. They're really good."
Senior Bryce Sanguinetti (5-11, 170) and junior Wyatt Faughnan (6-1, 180) will start at slotback on Friday. Sanguinetti, the fourth captain, is the Wildcats' leading returner at the position. The tough, speedy back carried just 12 times last season but gained 116 yards, including an electric 58-yard touchdown sprint against East Union.
Senior James Mitchell (5-8, 160) and junior Jayden Estrada (5-8, 150) will pick up the load when Sanguinetti and Faughnan are on the sidelines.
Christmas came early this year for Sonora in the form of 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior Kahale Warring. After starring in water polo for the Wildcats over the last three years, he decided this year to try his hand at football for the first time. He saw on Saturday his first ever live reps at receiver and impressed.
"Kahale is a big addition for us," Clifton said. "He did really, really well on Saturday. The first pass he caught, he took a couple of real good shots. And he did exactly what we asked him to do, he tucked it away and turned upfield. He's got some natural instincts that you can't teach."
Warring's size alone will be menacing. But that size combined with his leaping ability will strike fear into the hearts of defenders, and their coordinators. He finished third in the Valley Oak League in rebounding last year (8.7 per game) on his way to 2nd Team All-VOL honors.
Senior Thomas Nelson (6-1, 185), also a standout hoopster, will line up opposite of Warring giving the Wildcats a pair of quick, athletic targets.
Returning starter senior Dalton Miale (5-10, 150) surely will force his way onto the field and with seniors Lucas Pallante (5-10, 165) and Peyton Camacho (5-10, 160), the Wildcats could have opportunities on the outside.
Anchoring the offense in the trenches will be senior center Matt Konklin (6-0, 175), senior guards Zerek Saldivar (6-3, 215) and Colm Allan (5-10, 215), senior tackle Christian Maguire (5-10, 180) and juniors Garrett Bozzo (5-8, 160) and Kelson Console-Taylor (5-10, 210).
"It really helps that our center Matt Konklin is as smart as they get," said co-offensive coordinator/line coach Josh Kroeze. "He's a good player and he helps out there making line calls and making sure guys are doing the right things. He's working on learning every single position so he can be that kinda coach in the huddle and he's very capable of doing that."
During Saturday's scrimmage Sonora lost junior Blake Graham to injury for awhile. Graham (5-11, 215) was a projected starter on the line.
"I thought overall, we performed real well, but we lost a couple of guys which hurts," Kroeze said. "But it's the next man up so we're all prepared and ready to go. I thought we were pretty physical at the point of attack. We got off the ball real good. There's some stuff we need to improve on but it was a good starting point.
"Right now, I'm leaning on everybody. We've got a couple of returners who are good and experienced. But I'm leaning on the guy that maybe thought he was going to be a backup, or the backup to the backup. At this point right now, we're real thin and guys are gonna get chances. Maybe guys that thought they wouldn't be starting, are gonna start. And they're kind of forced into that position, but I look at it as a good opportunity for those guys to be able to take a position and never let it go. That's how they all have to look at it."
While opposing offenses may not have a difficult time seeing over the 2014 Wildcat defensive line, they're likely to have problems pushing it out of the way or holding them back.
Mierop will anchor the line at nose guard and will be flanked at tackles by senior Raymond Albanez (5-7, 190) and junior Shane Petrey (5-8, 160).
"They might be the smallest defensive linemen in Sonora history, and maybe the nastiest," Kroeze said. "They're all real high motor short area quickness guys that run and they're real difficult to block. They have great pad level and great get off. While they're small, I'm real excited about what those guys can do."
Mierop went against some monster-sized linemen at Saturday's scrimmage and had no problems competing against the bigger size.
"It felt good to get out there and hit some people," Mierop said. "There were some big boys, especially from Manteca. Their linemen can swallow you whole. But you just have to be faster than them, be faster and go low," Mierop said. "Low is the key. Low man wins every time."
Patrolling behind the line will be linebackers, and cousins, Kiriluk and Canepa.
Kiriluk wasn't completely happy with his performance at the scrimmage, or sounded disappointed at the lack of punishment he delivered.
"I didn't play as good as I wanted to, not as physical as I wanted anyway," Kiriluk said. "I was a little slow off my reads, but as a team we did really good on defense. Our D-line played really well against a lot of big guys. I was really proud. We flew to the ball and had good team effort tackling."
"Billy (Serge) and Bradley, I think that's gonna be part of the competition with the cousins," Craig said. "I think they're gonna want to compete. Bradley was complaining about being late to a play (in Saturday's scrimmage) because it was going away from him. He wants to be in there with Billy wrecking people. I think with them inside and Lane playing nose, I think that's a tough place to run on us."
Canepa will be the first sophomore to start for Sonora since Steve Lawrence, class of 2014, in three years.
At outside linebacker, or defensive end, or nickel back, will be seniors Aaron Norstrom (5-8, 165) and Mitchell with Bozzo pushing for playing time.
The defensive backfield features three seniors and an up-and-coming junior that continues to shine in practice.
Sanguinetti will start at safety, making it three captains starting on each side of the ball.
"When you look at Lane Mierop, Bryce Sanguinetti, and Billy (Serge) Kiriluk, those are three tough, hard-working kids," Craig said. "It gets us back to our old days when we were bring your lunch pale, knock-you-in-the-mouth kind of team. Those guys bring that. They work hard out here and show everybody how to play football by example. They're not the most vocal guys, but when they step on the football field they work hard and everybody follows them."
Junior Johnny Tahara (5-9, 150) will lineup at the other safety spot and Denton and Pallante will play cornerback.
Oakdale has officially eliminated Sonora from playoff contention the past two years. This time the Cats and Mustangs square off in each team's season opener.
"It's a little strange to play them so early, but when its your first game I don't think it really matters who it is," Clifton said. "But this group is different, they're not in awe of Oakdale which I think we have been some years in the past."
And the Wildcats shouldn't be in awe, they had every opportunity to beat the Mustangs last year at Dunlavy Field. (Lost 28-21). They had a touchdown called back and two other potential passing scores were dropped.
But the road to postseason starts at Oakdale in the Zero Week.
Sonora will host its home opener in Week 1 against Lodi, hit the road for clash against Hilmar and finish preseason at home against Ripon.
The Wildcats begin MLL play on Sept. 26 at home against Argonaut. They travel the next week to take on the defending MLL champions, the Calaveras Redskins. That game may be circled on calendars of some Wildcat seniors after they fell 13-7 to the Skins a year ago.
Then comes the Toulumne County clash between Sonora and Summerville under the Dunlavy Field lights. The Wildcats will also host homecoming against the Bears in what promises to be a packed house.
Sonora finishes its MLL slate against Linden (away), Amador (home) and Bret Harte (away).
With five wins, Sonora is eligible for postseason, and six wins likely punches the Wildcats' ticket.
"I think this is by the far the tightest knit group in the five years that I've been here," Clifton said. "In a lot of scrimmages, there are some dust ups or scrapes, or whatever you want to call them, and when that did happen, our guys were there and had each other's back. They didn't retaliate with their mouths. They're a fun group, they work hard everyday and I don't have to coach effort. It makes it a lot more fun to come out here when you don't have to tell the kids to work hard."