The Sierra Stallions and Harrison Panthers will face off on the gridiron for four quarters of high school football Friday night, with the Panthers riding an undefeated streak into the game at Sierra High School and the Stallions seeking to defend their home field against their crosstown rival.
The two 3A Southern League competitors will be seeking an ultra-important win in league play with the end of their seasons on the near horizon, and should be especially fired up for the annual rivalry matchup, which players and coaches on both sides tend to circle on their calendars year after year.
“I want to be as appropriate as possible,” said Sierra first-year head coach Draye Ersery, who graduated from the school in 2005. “I hate Harrison.”
“It’s nothing against (Harrison coach) Al Melo, nothing against the players. I’m pretty sure they’re great people. But Harrison in all? I’m sorry, I hate Harrison. I was bred that way and I’m making sure these kids understand that you don’t lose to them.”
The Stallions will have a tall task to take down the powerhouse Panthers, who have dominated the past seven years of the rivalry matchup, including outscoring Sierra a combined 84-8 in the previous two meetings between the two teams.
Despite the lopsided Harrison victories in recent years, the game remains a highlight for alumni of both schools, who tend to show up in force to watch their alma maters go toe-to-toe for sixty minutes under the stadium lights.
“The rivalry is always good for the community,” said 12th year Harrison head coach Al Melo.
“You see a lot of alumni who get very fired up for the game and are very loyal to their side. I think that’s the most fun part about the rivalry is seeing all the alumni who’ve been out of school, yet they still are loyal to either Harrison or Sierra and they come out and they support.”
Throughout the first six games of the year, the Stallions have had an up and down season, winning their first two games against Liberty and Woodland Park before dropping four straight games.
Ersery said the team has suffered from some discipline issues throughout their season thus far, and with just 23 players on the roster forcing nearly all of Sierra’s players to play both offense and defense, identified player depth as a resounding weakness for the team.
However, with his players grasping more of the game plan and scheme concepts with each passing week, Ersery said the team is continuously improving, which should give its younger players motivation to continue to work hard to get better next year.
“On the field they’re starting to trust each other,” Ersery said.
“We’re putting together drives and we’re actually scoring, as compared to a year ago when they would give up. So I think that they are actually understanding the concept of what we’re doing. You’re seeing them grow with it every week. They’re asking more questions and I think they’re definitely getting the concept of team ball and together ball.”
As for the Panthers, who won their first six games and are seeking a berth in the CHSAA State Playoffs for the second consecutive year, Melo said the team has relied thus far on its senior leadership and has practiced resiliency to remain undefeated throughout the first six games of their 2018 campaign.
“We’ve battled pretty well,” Melo said.
“There’s been games we’ve been down at the half and down in the third quarter and had to come back and make things happen and we’ve just battled. Our kids don’t flinch much. They stay in the moment and don’t get caught up. Whether it’s third-and-long or if we’re down, they stay focused.”
With a disappointing conclusion to last year’s campaign in which the 16th-seeded Panthers were beaten 56-19 by No. 1 seed Mead High School in the first round of the state playoffs, Melo said the Panthers aren’t resting on their laurels and are taking their climb to this year’s post season on a week-by-week basis.
“We’re trying to get over that hump and get to the playoffs and try to make a run,” Melo said.
“We’ve got a tough league, our league is very good. There’s very competitive teams and some physical teams and at this point our goal is to fight our best fight each and every time we step on the field.
“We’re not looking so far down the line. We’re just looking to play our best in the next game.”