Plant your flag.
We had a feeling this fall would be dominated by parity. We had a feeling multiple teams would have a chance at Sac-Joaquin Section and state glory, two hallmarks typically reserved for one: Central Catholic.
After four weeks of football, though, we could never have predicted this. The large-school rankings have been shook up and tossed like a load of laundry, and just as often, too.
Central Catholic lost two of its first three games and dropped out of the large-school No. 1 position for the first time in over a year. The Raiders looked like a shell of their former selves against Cathedral Catholic of San Diego (slow to start) and St. Mary’s (shut out for the first time in six years).
That opened the door for a Central California Conference team to seize the top spot, but it wasn’t Merced or Turlock, traditional powers. Opportunistic Pitman, playing airtight defense, jumped to No. 1 with impressive wins over Downey, Lincoln and Napa.
The Modesto Metro Conference climbed the ladder, rising as high as No. 2 with Modesto’s fast start, but plummeted to the back end of the top 10 with last week’s disappointing results.
The Pride and do-it-all star Devan Bass were the first to take our advice. They planted their flag and have held tight, but the season’s young. For many, league play begins Friday, and with it a chance to wipe the slate clean.
“Monday is a new season,” Downey coach Jeremy Plaa said following a 54-38 loss to Lincoln. “All the work you did the last four weeks, Monday is when it starts to pay off.”
Here’s a look at this week’s most intriguing “season openers”:
Oakdale (2-1) at Sierra (3-0) – The Mustangs have hit their stride in time for the start of Valley Oak League play. Oakdale has won two straight – topping Crater (Central Point, Ore.), a state semifinalist last season, and Campolindo (Moraga), a state runner-up last year and state champ in 2014. Friday’s 28-21 victory over Campolindo sent shock waves throughout the region. Running behind a dominant offensive line, senior Will Semone rushed for a 234 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries. A season-opening loss to Sonora cast doubt over the Mustangs, but a road win over the 16th-ranked team in Northern California suggests Oakdale is still very good. That said, the Mustangs aren’t even the hottest team in the Stanislaus District. Sierra owns the longest winning streak – nine games. Mark Vicente is 13-5 at quarterback, and he’s been nothing short of brilliant this fall. While his instincts, size and feet make him a unique dual threat, Vicente has punished teams with his arm. He threw game-winning touchdowns in wins over Ripon and Central Valley and then had a career-best five TD passes against Lodi. Pick: Oakdale.
Sonora (4-0) at Calaveras (4-0) – Calaveras running back Noah Preuss won’t look back at Calaveras’ 28-27 loss to Sonora last fall and wonder “what if,” but we will. Since becoming eligible in Week 8 of last season, no player in the Stanislaus District has rushed for more yards. Preuss has three 200-yard games and averaged 13.5 points per game. Based on those numbers, his presence alone would have been enough to upset the Wildcats. Knowing all of that, though, would you make host Calaveras the favorite in Friday’s rematch? I can’t. Like Calaveras, Sonora is better than it was in 2015 – and remember, those ’Cats were historically good. Sonora can do it all as well as anyone in the district, including travel. We knew the ’Cats could dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball with the likes of Killian Rosko and Bradley Canepa, but coach Bryan Craig showcased the vertical game in a 37-27 win at No. 3 Hilmar. Pick: Sonora.
Pitman (4-0) at Merced (3-1) – The Pride opens Central California Conference play at the three-time defending champion. Pitman retained its spot atop the large-school rankings with a dominating 27-14 victory over Deer Valley, while No. 4 Merced moved up two spots after whipping Madera. The Pride hasn’t beaten Merced since 2011, as the Bears are often too fast and dynamic for the CCC. Merced has won 18 straight league games. With late victories over Downey and Lincoln, Pitman won’t be intimidated by the speed, but pinning down Merced at home is a tricky task. Under coach Rob Scheidt, the Bears meet every moment with their very best, even in the wake of catastrophic injury. Sophomore quarterback Dhameer Warren has filled the void left by injured starter Jake Foss, but the ace in the hole remains running back Ulonzo Gilliam, a special two-way player. When he’s healthy – and he is – there are few better. The Pride will keep it close, because that’s what it does, but the inside track in the CCC bends along the corner of Olive Avenue and G Street in Merced. Pick: Merced.
Patterson (0-3) at Escalon (2-2) – The bye week came at the perfect time for the banged-up Tigers, who have lost four straight games, dating to last season, for the first time under coach Rob Cozart, but the schedule offers no layups. As if Escalon wasn’t tough enough to beat on its own, Patterson will also have to contend with homecoming at Engel Field. That means a large, spirited crowd, purple everywhere, and potentially longer pregame and halftime breaks. Cozart and his staff will do their best to keep the status quo, to maintain their routine amid all the hoopla, but it won’t be easy. This is an old-school Trans-Valley League rivalry between two teams that win with contrasting styles. Escalon wants to churn out long drives, running Tim Costa and C.J. Gumbs behind Bo and Blue Capps on the left side, while Patterson seeks explosive plays and tempo. It worked with historic results last fall, but Cozart’s “spread ’em and shred ’em” offense has been shackled by injuries. The Tigers are getting healthier but will need time to time establish a rhythm again. Pick: Escalon.
Prep football predictions
Joe Cortez: 20-5. James Burns: 18-7
Year to date
Cortez: 90-30 (.750). Burns: 86-34 (.717)
Buhach Colony at Turlock. Burns: Turlock. Cortez: Turlock
Golden Valley at El Capitan. Burns: Golden Valley. Cortez: Golden Valley
Merced vs. Pitman at Golden Valley. Burns: Merced. Cortez: Pitman
Beyer at Gregori. Burns: Gregori. Cortez: Gregori.
Davis at Downey. Burns: Downey. Cortez:: Downey
Modesto at Johansen. Burns: Modesto. Cortez:: Modesto.
Amador at Linden. Burns: Amador. Cortez:: Amador
Bret Harte at Argonaut. Burns: Argonaut. Cortez:: Argonaut
Sonora at Calaveras. Burns: Sonora. Cortez:: Sonora
Denair at Gustine. Burns: Gustine. Cortez:: Denair
Le Grand at Waterford. Burns: Waterford. Cortez:: Waterford
Mariposa County at Delhi. Burns: Delhi. Cortez: Delhi
Orestimba at Ripon Christian. Burns: Orestimba. Cortez: Orestimba
Central Catholic at Weston Ranch. Burns: Central Catholic. Cortez: Central Catholic
Lathrop at East Union. Burns: Lathrop. Cortez: East Union
Manteca at Kimball. Burns: Manteca. Cortez: Manteca.
Oakdale at Sierra. Burns: Oakdale. Cortez: Oakdale
Atwater at Ceres. Burns: Ceres. Cortez: Ceres
Central Valley at West. Burns: Central Valley. Cortez: Central Valley
Hilmar at Livingston. Burns: Hilmar. Cortez: Hilmar
Hughson vs. Liberty Ranch at Galt. Burns: Liberty Ranch. Cortez: Liberty Ranch
Patterson at Escalon. Burns: Escalon. Cortez: Patterson
Turlock Christian vs. Riverbank at Hilmar. Burns: Riverbank. Cortez: Turlock Christian
Immanuel at Modesto Christian. Burns: Modesto Christian. Cortez: Modesto Christian
Ripon at Sutter. Burns: Sutter. Cortez: Sutter
Brookside Christian vs. Stone Ridge Christian at Lincoln. Burns: SRC. Cortez: SRC
Big Valley Christian vs. Millennium at Tracy. Burns: Big Valley Chr. Cortez: Big Valley Chr.