Comprised of teams from the Modesto Metro Conference, Central California Conference, Valley Oak League and Western Athletic Conference.
1. Oakdale (14-2): The Mustangs return most of the starters from a team that won VOL, Sac-Joaquin Section Division III and CIF Division III-A State Bowl titles last fall. Oakdale has replaced record-setting running back Will Semone, now at Cal Poly, with one of the fastest fullbacks to ever play for coach Trent Merzon – Josh Jacobson. Scary. Friday: at Sonora.
2. Manteca (12-2): The Buffaloes also return a wealth of talent; 17 of the 22 starters, to be exact, including quarterback Gino Campiotti, massive defensive tackle Justin Kakala, and run-stopping middle linebacker Ferrin Manuleleua. With that nucleus, the reigning D-IV section champions are poised for a historic season. Friday: vs. Valley Christian (San Jose).
3. Central Catholic (8-4): This is the first time in three years the four-time CIF state champions haven’t started the season atop the large-school poll. Central Catholic endured its share of struggles last fall, but still managed to defend its VOL title. The Raiders, who shared the throne with Oakdale and Manteca, will follow the lead of linemen Brandon Williamson and Chris Mendoza. Friday: vs. Archbishop Riordan.
4. Downey (8-3): The Knights have won five consecutive MMC championships and will be the heavy favorite to win a sixth. Downey has reloaded its “Air Raid” attack and UCLA-bound wide receiver Isaiah Johnson should fast-track first-year quarterback Bryce Peterson’s development. Young and fast, the Knights will be tested early with three road games to start the season. Friday: at Buhach Colony.
5. Turlock (9-3): The Bulldogs will be the hunted in the CCC for the first time 14 years. Turlock snapped its league title drought last fall, securing the championship with a Harvest Bowl victory over Pitman in their regular-season finale. The Bulldogs suffered heavy graduation losses, but have found new leadership from seniors Dustin Grein and Mark Flores, a third-year running back. Friday: vs. Freedom (Oakley).
6. Merced (9-4): A perennial contender in the CCC, Merced coach Rob Scheidt has another fast, athletic group to work with. Junior quarterback Dhameer Warren will pull the strings in the offense, but he’ll be helped by a stable of running backs. After winning four consecutive CCC titles from 2012 to 2015, the Bears want their throne back. Friday: vs. Del Campo at Veterans Stadium.
7. Pitman (10-2): Last fall, the Pride captured the attention of the southern half of the section with its penchant for thrilling wins and its rise to No. 1 in the poll. The Pride won their first nine games and defeated Monterey Trail in the first round of the Division I playoffs. Can Pitman build on that success, even without the playmaking ability of Devan Bass, now at Modesto Junior College? Friday: at Napa.
8. Gregori (7-4): If quarterback Bobby Avina can stay healthy, the Jaguars should be in the hunt for the program’s first MMC title. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one player, but Avina, a highly-touted talent with a string of 7-on-7 accolades, can handle it. Gregori is due. The youngest school in Modesto has four consecutive winning seasons. Friday: vs. Golden Valley.
9. Modesto (6-5): Brett Wagner replaces Donnie Wallace as the Panthers’ head coach. For Wagner, this is a well-deserved promotion. He served as a lower-level coach under Wallace and Richie Alkire before him. Wagner should hit the ground running. Literally. He possesses one of the top running back duos in Eugene Zaire and Chris Styles. Friday: vs. Modesto Christian at Chuck Hughes Stadium.
10. Buhach Colony (5-5): The Thunder possess one of the supreme individual talents in defensive back/wide receiver LJ Wallace, but have failed to reach the playoffs under fourth-year coach Kevin Navarra. Some in the CCC believe the Thunder can compete for a league title. We’ll find out early. Friday: vs. Downey.
Others to watch: East Union, Pacheco, Patterson, Beyer.
Comprised of teams from the Trans-Valley League, Mother Lode League, Southern League and Central California Athletic Association.
1. Sonora (11-1): Be advised, the Wildcats are as fast and athletic as they’ve ever been. Combine those physical tools with a large returning class and it’s easy to see why Sonora sits atop the small-school poll. The Wildcats are heavy favorites to win a fourth consecutive MLL title and should be players at the section and state levels. Friday: vs. Oakdale.
2. Hilmar (9-2): The two-time defending TVL champions have posted back-to-back nine-win seasons and played for a Division VI section title in 2015. Despite its youth, the Yellowjackets are still the team to beat in the TVL. Quarterback Tristan Crowley assumes full-time responsibility of coach Frank Marques’ Spread offense. Friday: vs. Beyer at Modesto Christian.
3. Calaveras (8-3): Quarterback Kyle Byrd returns for his senior season. An all-conference performer in 2017, Byrd enjoyed a productive summer, dazzling coaches in passing league scrimmages. He’ll be protected by center/defensive tackle John Kelley, a fourth-year varsity player. Friday: vs. El Capitan.
4. Orestimba (10-2): The Warriors are the two-time defending champion in the SL and boast a 14-game conference winning streak, but the path to a third title won’t be easy. Orestimba must travel to Mariposa, Denair and rival Gustine this season. Friday: at Mendota.
5. Modesto Christian (5-6): The Crusaders jump into the top-5 with the return of two-way talent Paul Puaauli, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Puaauli, a running back and linebacker, joins a cast that already includes 1,000-yard rusher Davion Gates and quarterback Rory Hanson. Friday: vs. Modesto at Chuck Hughes Stadium.
– James Burns