MANTECA – Kirk Simoni’s varsity career began with a play he’d rather forget.
Here he was, a 140-pound freshman for East Union High, promoted after a successful season on the freshman team, and he felt predictable anxiety as he stood in the backfield last Friday night against Kimball.
Then the first snap flew over his head, he was smashed to the ground, and Kimball scooped and scored.
Welcome to Friday night lights, kid.
The Lancers eventually lost 36-30, but Simoni didn’t flinch. He threw for 175 yards and one touchdown and was a drop away from a second. He also threw two interceptions – one in the final moments – but second-year coach Mike Kuhnlenz clearly liked what he saw.
Simoni will make his second start Friday night when the Lancers welcome Nevada Union of Grass Valley to Dino Cunial Field for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV first-round game.
“It was pretty cool to be out there with the varsity players,” Simoni said this week. “There were obvious adjustments I had to make, but the guys and the coaches helped me a lot. I give credit to them because they helped me get through it.”
Simoni, the son of first-year East Union principal Eric Simoni, does not scare opponents with his physical presence. He looks and talks like, well, a freshman. He’s ahead of the game, however, because he knows the offense and – remember the first play last week? – he doesn’t panic.
“He has poise in the pocket and looks down the field for his guys,” Kuhnlenz said. “He’s an extremely smart kid. It was a no-brainer for me having him out throwing the ball to No. 1.”
“No. 1” is senior Dylan Lee, who at times single-handedly carried the Lancers through their 4-6 season. All he did was pass for 1,080 yards and 11 touchdowns, rush for 694 yards and eight touchdowns and made 18 receptions for 298 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw his 6-foot-2 215-pound frame around the field on defense.
Trouble was, Lee – who rewrote all the school pass-receiving records last season -- had to take most of the reps this year at quarterback. EU coaches monitored Simoni’s progress and finally pulled the trigger last week. The East Union freshmen, no doubt their best football class in many years, went 9-1 and shared the Valley Oak League title with Manteca and Oakdale.
How he’ll fare in the postseason remains to be seen, but the Lancers played one of their best games last week. This much we know: A freshman making his second start at quarterback is a fascinating development going into the playoffs’ first week.
“It doesn’t really matter who’s throwing the ball to me,” Lee said. “I don’t really worry about the age (of the QB), as he long as we get it done.”
East Union, seeded sixth, and 11th-seeded Nevada Union labored through similar seasons, and both finished 4-6.
The Foothill Valley League League was dominated by unbeaten Placer and runner-up West Park of Roseville, while champion Central Catholic and runner-up Manteca were the best of the Valley Oak League.
The committee rewarded the Lancers due to their difficult schedule which included 10-0 Downey and Lincoln of Stockton. The Miners lost four straight but squeezed into the bracket with easy wins the last two weeks over Oakmont and Ponderosa.
“All the athleticism and speed we saw against Downey and Lincoln prepared us for this week,” Kuhnlenz said. “Nevada Union is similar to us. They spread it out and have some athletes. We don’t expect them to drive two hours to get here for nothing.”
East Union has taken modest but tangible steps during Kuhnlenz’s two-year tenure. Last fall, the Lancers won their first playoff game in 29 years. This season, Lee shined through difficult times and there’s hope springing from the underclassmen.
And now a kid with braces on his teeth will call the signals.
“I felt like I got a little more comfortable in the second half (against Kimball),” Simoni said. “It was still difficult, but I felt like I improved.”
Meanwhile, many of the area’s best teams enjoy first-round byes: Central California Athletic League champion Downey (No. 3 seed in D-II), Manteca (No. 1 seed in D-II), Central California Conference champion Patterson (No. 2 seed in D-III), Trans-Valley League champion Hilmar (No. 4 seed in D-V), Mother Lode League champion Sonora (No. 2 seed in D-V) and Southern League champion Orestimba (No. 3 seed in D-VI).
Central Catholic will make its D-I debut at home Friday night against Stagg. Also at home is Western Athletic Conference champion Los Banos, the No. 8 seed in D-IV, against Buhach Colony. Turlock, the No. 7 seed in D-I, welcomes Edison. Escalon, the No. 5 seed in D-V, stays at home against Pacheco. Oakdale, seeded seventh in D-III, is home against Roseville. Merced, seeded fifth in D-III, will be at home against Ceres. Ripon, seeded eighth in D-V, will be the host against Rosemont.
Le Grand, seeded No. 2 in D-VII, is at home against Delta of Clarksburg. Modesto Christian, the No. 10 seed in D-VI, visits Twelve Bridges in Lincoln. Golden Valley, the No. 9 seed in D-III, goes to Woodcreek. Gregori, seeded 12th in D-II, travels to Jesuit for a Saturday afternoon game at 2 p.m. Tracy, seeded seventh in D-II, is at home against Antelope.
The Division V-II bracket will not begin until Friday, Nov. 11. Top-seeded Ripon Christian will be at home against Rio Vista, while No. 2 LeGrand welcomes Delta of Clarksburg. No. 6 Gustine visits Woodland Christian. Stone Ridge Christian of Merced, the Central California Athletic Alliance League champion, is seeded fourth and will face Mariposa County.
Other playoff teams awaiting an opponent next week are MLL runner-up Summerville, TVL runner-up Hughson and Kimball.
For a look at all seven section brackets, visit cifsjs.org.