By now, Sonora High football coach Bryan Craig likes to have his schedule buttoned up.
It's bad enough to have one opening to fill during the holiday season, but two?
"This is later than I like. I usually have the schedule set up by Christmas break. By then, we're usually good to go," said Craig, preparing for his 10th season at the helm of the Wildcat program. "There's so many things to consider, too. We need a home game and don't want to travel outside the section because it's costly. You get a little anxious, no doubt."
The Wildcats had two openings fill during the Christmas break, one of which caught the coaching staff by surprise. In the 11th hour, Craig said Lodi declined to renew its contract with the Wildcats, and Linden's departure from the Mother Lode League created a second vacancy.
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Craig has filled Lodi's spot with another Tri-City Athletic League opponent, West of Tracy. The Wolf Pack, with just one win the last two seasons, will travel to Dunlavy Field on Sept. 14. Sonora visits West in 2019.
Linden's departure in the section's latest realignment cycle leaves Sonora with an additional opening to fill. Craig would like to find a team for either Week 2 or Week 5, and use the remaining opening for a bye.
Last fall, Sonora's bye came during Week 8.
This late in the process, Craig said he can't afford to be picky.
"You'd like to see someone that will help you get better for league; someone, offensively and defensively, you might see in league," he said. "You want to prepare yourself for league. At this point, though, we just want a good football game."
Sonora's non-conference schedule currently looks like this: Week 0 (Aug. 17), at Oakdale; Week 1 (Aug. 24), vs. Ripon; Week 2 (Aug. 31), open; Week 3 (Sept. 7), at Hilmar; Week 4 (Sept. 14), vs. West; and Week 5 (Sept. 21), open.
The 2018 season promises to be a special one for Sonora, the four-time defending Mother Lode League champion.
The Wildcats return quarterback Jake Gookin, MLL defensive player of the year Evan Bearden, running back C.J. Castleman, and most of its secondary from a team that won nine games despite a rash of injuries.
Gookin led the team in rushing and was an all-MLL first team selection, while Castleman was a second-team honoree. Castleman, one of the fastest sprinters in the Stanislaus District, came on strong in the wake of Kane Rodger's season-ending ACL tear.
Sonora has won 43 games over the last four season, winning a Sac-Joaquin Section championship and hosting a CIF State regional bowl in 2015. The Wildcats were the No. 1 seed in the Division V playoffs last fall, but were ousted by Colfax in the second round.
"I have high expectations," Craig said. "We had a lot of juniors forced into playing last year and we got better because of it. We didn't want to do it, but we lost some key players last year.
"By the end, our quarterback was one of the best in the league in terms of running the ball and our offense. We had other guys step up, so, yeah, we have high expectations for this team."
Also looking for games...
Ripon and Central Catholic are looking for Week 0 dance partners, but what are the chances they'll schedule one another? The Indians are 0-5 against the Raiders and none of the games have been close. Central Catholic has won each game by at least 19 points, including a 38-7 decision in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinal in 2013.