Trans-Valley League has a tradition of toughness

ragostini@modbee.comAugust 24, 2013 

The Trans-Valley League often is called California's toughest small-schools football conference.

Care to argue the point?

• The league has taken home two CIF state-championship plaques over the last four years: Modesto Christian in 2009 and Escalon in 2010.

• Hilmar and Escalon twice have met in Sac-Joaquin Section title games over the last decade. They split. Hilmar also owns a win over Central Catholic in the 2008 Division 5 final.

• Just to break through the league's leather-tough upper half last year, Ripon compiled its first unbeaten regular season in three decades and its first league title since 1996.

"Every week, you have to prepare to play your best game," Ripon coach Chris Johnson said. "I think we make each other better. I spend a lot of time during the off-season just to make sure our kids will be ready."

This fall promises a variation on the same theme. Hughson, a former power now on the upswing, recorded its first winning season since 2007 with a team that has been tabbed the TVL favorite this year.

Coach George Harp understands how to attack this gauntlet. He was the quarterback in 1994 and '95 when the Huskies ruled the TVL.

"We were young last year," Harp said. "I think we can build on that success."

Hughson and its crowd-pleasing running back Tanner Duron must fend off up to four legitimate challengers, however, in the TVL. Hilmar, Escalon, Ripon and Modesto Christian all bring better-than-good credentials.

Orestimba also trots out its all-time leading rusher Steven Machado. And Riverbank's two-way lineman Fabian Arana, a three-time league discus champion, oozes strength.

"It will be more unpredictable than ever," Hilmar coach Frank Marques said. "No one will go undefeated."

Escalon, tied with Folsom for most wins in the section since 2008 (59), faces an uphill climb by breaking in 18 new starters. But such is the respect the Cougars have earned over the years, no one thinks they'll be an easy hit.

Because they haven't been easy to beat in, well, forever. Its supposed "rebuilding year" in 2012 resulted in a 10-3 campaign and a trip to the section final.

Still, coach Mark Loureiro and his veteran staff reboot in a big way.

"Our non-league games are against Los Banos, Pacheco, Linden and Patterson," Loureiro said. "If we go .500 in non-league, we can compete. But this is the toughest mix for us in years."

The Cougars will fall back on their impressive pedigree. T-shirts reading "Cougar 4 Life" or "Tradition Never Graduates" are byproducts of their football success.

In fact, many TVL schools grow their football roots deep. In 1980 — 29 years before Isaiah Burse and Company carried Modesto Christian to glory in Carson — the Crusaders won an eight-man state title.

MC's third-year coach Steve Gleason, who learned most of his football as a line coach under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, believes each team should build its own identity.

"I hate comparing us to 2009. No one in the area can do better than 15-0," he said. "We talk about it, but it is in the past. We ask our guys, 'What is your legacy going to be here?' "

The past bridges to the present, however, when "The Sword" is carried onto the field before each Modesto Christian home game. The previous week's offensive player of the game plunges it into the turf in a ritual begun several years ago by former coach Mike Parsons.

Elsewhere, Hilmar organizes a homecoming so festive that it closes Lander Avenue — its main street that bisects the town — so it can feature its elaborate floats. Near the Yellowjackets' weight room, players tap the sign bearing the message "Whatever It Takes."

Orestimba dresses in a field house that the Warriors have called home since the 1950s. At Riverbank, fathers or guardians of Riverbank players are invited into the locker room before home games. It's a reminder that life-lessons trump wins and losses.

"We promote fatherhood," Bruins coach Jim Oliver said, "so our kids who don't have fathers will grow up to be good fathers."

Hughson, not unlike many Stanislaus District teams, gathers for team meals prepared by parents on Thursday night. Harp attended those dinners as a player.

On game night, Ripon is led onto the field by huge red flags spelling R-I-P-O-N. And when the Indians score a touchdown, the entire city knows because a huge artillery gun — manned by the school's Junior ROTC — blasts its own celebration.

What does it all mean, you ask? Simply, football still matters in the TVL, where the climb to the top always is heated.

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