The watchword this week on the Downey High School practice field is “focus.”
Focus on your opponent, seventh-ranked Modesto. Focus on the game plan. Focus on your role and winning the individual battle. Focus on the season-long goal and embrace the moment, because it’s here.
If the Knights can check all of those boxes – and I believe they can – they’ll storm the field at Dan Gonsalves Stadium, celebrating a share of the program’s fifth straight Modesto Metro Conference crown.
The Panthers won’t go away without a fight, though. Modesto is too talented, well-coached and scrappy to just let No. 8 Downey have the throne. Coach Donnie Wallace will use every weapon at his disposal, turning this game into a shootout.
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We’ll see heavy doses of running backs Zaire Eugene and Chris Styles charging behind an offensive line led by third-year varsity road-grader Justin Farkas. They’ll attack through the air with R.J. Berumen, Markus Brady and Connor Cruce and then hope scrambling QB Norvale Howard and his ankle can catch the Knights by surprise.
Modesto leads the MMC in scoring, so points won’t be an issue.
Downey coach Jeremy Plaa champions the onside kick at every opportunity. He believes the Knights gain more than they lose by kicking short, and he’s crunched the numbers. Without a kicker who can produce touchbacks, Plaa estimates Downey gives away an average of 12 yards in field position – when the team recovers the kick.
The Knights only need to steal one kick to create separation in this matchup of league unbeatens.
Downey can’t give away possessions, either. Quarterback Brett Neves has thrown nearly as many interceptions through eight games (11) as he did last season (12), and Malcome Green has fumbled three times, but we expect both teams to be at their very best.
Which puts the focus on the onside kick.
Central Valley (6-1, 2-0 Western Athletic Conference) at Pacheco (4-3, 2-0): The hottest teams in the WAC meet on the new synthetic surface at Pacheco. Central Valley rides into town on a five-game winning streak, while the Panthers have won three straight. Something has to give, and in true heavyweight fashion, this game will be decided by the biggest, strongest players on the field. The high-scoring Panthers have shown an ability to attack through the air, but their best asset is running back Tk Teneng. The senior has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and gashed Livingston for an 81-yard touchdown last week. The Hawks will counter with a mean-spirited defensive front that doesn’t budge. Central Valley has allowed just one 100-yard rusher in seven games – Davis’ Mohammed Salameh in Week 3 – and limited Los Banos to 94 rushing yards in a 16-8 win. Linemen Gabriel Quezada (11), David Serrano (13), Erik Mejia (12) and Carlos Fregoso (12) have combined for 48 tackles for a loss. Quezada leads the league with seven sacks. It could be a long night for Teneng.
Pick: Central Valley.
Ripon (4-3, 2-0 Trans-Valley League) at Escalon (3-4, 1-1): The Cougars’ playoff hopes get a boost with the return of running back/cornerback C.J. Gumbs, who has missed three weeks because of a high ankle sprain. Gumbs’ condition will be tested by Ripon quarterback Ryan Daggett, who will look to stretch the field with wide receiver Aaron Paschini. The 6-foot senior has 604 yards and nine touchdowns on 35 catches, including a highlight-reel grab to close the scoring in a 23-6 victory at Modesto Christian. Daggett and Paschini haven’t met a coverage they couldn’t beat, and that won’t change this week. Defensively, Ripon proved it could stop a formidable rushing attack, stifling Chris Brown and the Crusaders. Brown rushed for 112 yards but needed 29 carries and never found the end zone. Linebacker Bryce Kinsey (team-high 42 tackles through the first six games) leads the charge for the Indians.
High School Football Predictions
Joe Cortez: 22-4 James Burns: 22-4
Year to date
Cortez: 178-44 (.801) Burns: 175-47 (.788)
Merced vs. Buhach Colony. Burns: Merced. Cortez: Merced.
Pitman at El Capitan. Burns: Pitman. Cortez: Pitman.
Atwater at Turlock. Burns: Turlock. Cortez: Turlock.
Turlock Christian at Sierra Ridge/Rite of Passage. Burns: Rite of Passage. Cortez: TC.
Stone Ridge Christian vs. Millennium. Burns: Stone Ridge. Cortez: Stone Ridge.
Enochs vs. Johansen. Burns: Enochs. Cortez: Enochs.
Gregori vs. Davis. Burns: Gregori. Cortez: Gregori.
Modesto vs. Downey. Burns: Downey. Cortez: Downey.
Linden at Argonaut. Burns: Argonaut. Cortez: Argonaut.
Bret Harte at Summerville. Burns: Bret Harte. Cortez: Summerville.
Amador at Calaveras. Burns: Calaveras. Cortez: Calaveras.
Delhi at Denair. Burns: Delhi. Cortez: Delhi.
Gustine at Le Grand. Burns: Gustine. Cortez: Gustine.
Mariposa County at Ripon Christian. Burns: Ripon Christian. Cortez: Ripon Christian.
Orestimba at Waterford. Burns: Orestimba. Cortez: Orestimba.
Modesto Christian at Hilmar. Burns: Hilmar. Cortez: Hilmar.
Mountain House at Hughson. Burns: Hughson. Cortez: Hughson.
Ripon at Escalon. Burns: Ripon. Cortez: Escalon.
Central Catholic at Sierra. Burns: Central Catholic. Cortez: Central Catholic.
Kimball at East Union. Burns: East Union. Cortez: East Union.
Manteca at Lathrop. Burns: Manteca. Cortez: Manteca.
Weston Ranch at Oakdale. Burns: Oakdale. Cortez: Oakdale.
Central Valley at Pacheco. Burns: Central Valley. Cortez: Central Valley.
Livingston at Ceres. Burns: Ceres. Cortez: Ceres.
Los Banos at Patterson. Burns: Los Banos. Cortez: Los Banos.
Brookside Christian vs. Big Valley Christian. Burns: Brookside Christian. Cortez: Brookside Christian.