Then there were seven. That's the number of Stanislaus District football teams in contention for a Sac-Joaquin Section title.
It's also the number of teams contending for a spot in the inaugural Northern California bowls, a five-game showcase to determine the five schools that will play for state crowns.
Some teams are better positioned than others in the pursuit of a regional bowl, with Central Catholic and Oakdale atop that list. Both are favored to win section titles, but another factor is that both are high in CalHiSports' rankings.
Central Catholic is No. 1 in the NorCal D4 poll, while Oakdale is No. 3 in D2 but the two ahead of it are in the North Coast Section and they would play one another. Only section champs can go to a regional bowl.
The darkhorse in this regional race is Escalon, which won a state title in 2010. That name, and coach Mark Loureiro's reputation as a big-game coach, were enhanced by Friday's 27-26 upset of state-ranked Placer.
The section D1 and D2 champs will be going, because there are only four candidates for four spots in the D1 and Open bowls.
LOCAL TEAMS' CHANCES
There are seven Stanislaus District football teams chasing Sac-Joaquin Section titles and berths in one of the five Northern California bowls the weekend of Dec. 7-8. Here is a look at the teams and the chances they will advance:
Central Catholic (prohibitive favorite): The Raiders play in a medium-school league, going 6-0 to win the Western Athletic Conference, and play with smaller schools in the section D4 playoffs. If they win a section title, they are a lock to go to the NorCal D4 Bowl (Waterford and Le Grand are candidates for that game, too) and a runaway favorite to win and go to the State Bowl. The Raiders have at least five players who would be a profound impact in the D1 playoffs (Rey Vega, John Mundt, Blake Escobar, Nate Loya and Ray Lomas), giving them the ability to overwhelm smaller foes.
Major hurdle: The most difficult path for the Raiders will be the next two weeks. Center is fast and agile imagine Ripon at twice the speed and then it would be physical Escalon or speedy Los Banos in the section final. CC beat Los Banos 35-14 in Week 5, but it often struggles with Escalon.
Oakdale (Heavy favorite): As soon as the brackets came out and Placer was in D4 and Yuba City in D2, the Mustangs became the favorite for the D3 section crown. It hosts American Canyon Friday in a semifinal and a win sends it to Lincoln of Stockton to play for the title against Inderkum or Vista del Lago. Oakdale's edge is its physical Wing-T offense, the outlier in a bracket dominated by spread attacks. Oakdale would likely see Rancho Cotate (11-0), Clayton Valley (10-1) or Concord (10-2) in a potential NorCal D2 Bowl. If Oakdale wins the section, it's a lock to get a NorCal berth.
Major hurdle: The Mustangs have traditionally struggled with speed backs, and they'll see one of the best in NorCal on Friday with American Canyon's Jomon Dotson (2,087 yards, 13.6 yards a carry). After that, it could be Inderkum in the final it had a trio of backs top 150 yards Friday.
Buhach Colony (longshot): It's not that the Thunder isn't respected, but it would have to beat top seed Folsom in the section semifinal before playing Del Oro or Elk Grove for the title. It's a grueling assignment, but one BC can survive with its powerful run game and lots of speed on defense. BC needs to keep Folsom's potent offense off the field, and a steady stream of run plays is crucial. The section D2 is virtually guaranteed a spot in a regional game, either D1 or the Open against De La Salle.
Major hurdle: Sophomore QB Jake Browning is the newest Folsom phenom, and he leads the state with 4,523 yards and 55 TDs. He threw 10 TDs in his varsity debut this fall and seven in a first-round rout of Atwater. Folsom pounded BC 55-20 in the semifinal in 2010.
Escalon (playing with house money): At 10-2 and an underdog the next two weeks, Escalon has nothing but challenges. It has cache from Friday's upset of state-ranked Placer, and a win over CC in the final would be recognized throughout the state. Escalon, with influential Mark Loureiro running its team, is the rare program that can jump a one-loss team for the D3 Bowl berth. It won the state title two years ago, stunning a gifted SoCal team, and everyone loves the idea of a small public school playing for a championship.
Major hurdle: Escalon lost to Los Banos 34-32 in the season opener, and the Cougars have improved mightily since that game. It faces matchup issues in a final vs. Central Catholic though no one in this division outcoaches Loureiro. If the Cougars win out, the momentum could be enough to sweep into the region bowl.
Los Banos (very long odds): LB will be 13-1 if it wins a section D4 title, and would have won a bracket that featured three 10-0 teams and three 9-1 teams. The total record of the bracket was 130-30, and it had heavyweights Central Catholic and Placer. LB lacks name recognition, though, and will be a NorCal D3 Bowl nominee if it wins the section. It might have to win a vote over two of the three potential unbeaten section champs (Sutter, Seaside and El Cerrito). LB has an edge in that its explosive style is popular with fans and its skill players are the closest to matching SoCal's stars.
Major hurdle: It's almost guaranteed that politics will prevent LB from a regional bowl, with the state anxious to get a Northern Section team down to Carson. Only one Northern school has made a State Bowl in the six-year history, and Hamilton Union lost 59-7. No one's looked at a Northern school since the 2008 debacle. The North Coast winner is almost assured of one D3 berth.
Le Grand and Waterford (off the board): These league rivals play for the D5 section crown Saturday, and that's going to be the season finale for both. Both have two losses and little special on their schedule. If CC win the section D4 title, it earns one of the NorCal D4 Bowl berths. Even if CC falls, there are four teams (McClymonds of Oakland, Ferndale, Pierce of Arbuckle, California School for the Deaf of Fremont) with better résumés.