Two coaching stints in the Valley Oak League have given Central Catholic High’s Roger Canepa a keen understanding of the league’s history and its bluebloods, particularly Manteca.
And without batting an eye, Canepa can say this about the Buffaloes (3-0), the reigning Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV champions and next Friday’s opponent in their VOL opener.
“That team they beat from Valley Christian is the real deal,” said Canepa, a former co-coach at Sonora High. “Everybody keeps telling us they’ve got the best team in school history, and they are. I’ve coached in the VOL. They’re really good and they should be good.”
Manteca returns 17 starters from a team that began its section title run a year ago with a co-VOL title, sharing that throne with Central Catholic (2-0) and Oakdale (2-1).
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The team is tethered to a group of three-year starters, each an all-conference selection last fall: quarterback Gino Campiotti, middle linebacker Ferrin Manuleleua, offensive lineman Kyle Reis, and Harvard-bound defensive lineman Justin Kakala.
Canepa has been impressed with Campiotti, a dual-threat quarterback building momentum on the recruiting trail. In games against Valley Christian and Christian Brothers, two regionally respected programs, Campiotti completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 503 yards and six touchdowns.
“What he can do that that position, no one else can do,” Canepa said. “Not only can he throw the ball, he can tuck it and run, too. He can beat teams with his arm and his legs. You can cover everyone, but if your pass rush let’s you down, he can break a big one. If you don’t cover people, he’ll beat you with his arm. That’s what a quarterback who is athletic can do. You can’t make one mistake with a guy like that.”
So far, the Buffaloes haven’t disappointed.
Manteca has celebrated a last-second victory against Valley Christian, which pushed a potential game-winning field goal wide; rallied to beat Christian Brothers in the final minute; and blanked Enochs.
Now, they’ll take a swing at the Raiders, a four-time CIF State champion who feels overshadowed by the success enjoyed by Manteca and Oakdale in 2016. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Manteca High’s venerable Guss Schmiedt Field.
“This is a great football league we’re in, probably the best in the San Joaquin,” Canepa said. “You have to be ready to play every week.”
Central Catholic’s stock has climbed in the wake of a 20-7 victory at St. Mary’s, then the No. 10 in the state, according to Cal-Hi Sports. Dauson Booker rushed for more than 100 yards and a touchdown, Coleby Garrett found the end zone twice and the defense forced the Rams into five turnovers.
The stunning upset came one week after the Raiders had a non-conference clash at Marin Catholic cancelled because of weather concerns. Canepa praised his team for rebounding from that disappointment and beating a team with section and CIF State aspirations.
“That’s what hard work does,” he said. “It’s one game and you have to prepare. We had a good week of practice, we executed well, and we played hard. I tell my team all the time, ‘The way you practice is the way you’ll play.’ If you make mistakes and just go through the motions in practice, you’re going to play slow. We try to practice fast.”
Here’s a look at next week’s other marquee league openers:
Calaveras (4-0) at Sonora (2-2): Is it possible the Mother Lode League title will be decided in the opening week? Calaveras has rocketed up the small-school charts, landing at No. 1 following an impressive 4-0 start. Led by quarterback Kyle Byrd, Calaveras has beaten El Capitan, Escalon, Modesto Christian and Union Mine. Injuries, discipline issues and turnovers have sent former small-school No. 1 Sonora, the three-time defending MLL champion, in the other direction. The Wildcats were without five starters, including middle linebacker Mason Dambacher, in last week’s tussle with Hilmar, another former No. 1. Dambacher, one of The Bee’s top-50 returning players, will miss the rest of the season after breaking his ankle, an injury that required surgery. The Wildcats are undefeated against the Mother Lode since joining the foothill conference in 2014, but never have they been so vulnerable.
Oakdale (2-1) at East Union (3-0): No. 1 Oakdale opens VOL play at East Union, one of the surprises through the first four weeks of the season. The Lancers are 3-0 and ranked in the large-school top-10 for the second straight week in the large-school poll. Admittedly, East Union has played a soft schedule, which has led to awesome offensive totals for coach Willie Herrera’s Wing offense. The running lanes will get considerably tighter against the Mustangs, the reigning VOL, Sac-Joaquin Section Division III and CIF State champions. A key match-up will be East Union’s veteran offensive line, led by all-VOL senior Jaysen Reindel, versus Oakdale’s rugged front, anchored by Fresno State-bound Matt Kjeldgaard and Levi Ichord. Another player to watch is Oakdale running back Cameron Cherry, who has averaged more than 200 yards per game.
Davis (2-2) vs. Downey (4-0), at Gregori High: This promises to be another long night in the Modesto Metro Conference, where the top passing offenses in the Stanislaus District collide. The Spartans have been a revelation this season, debuting a Spread offense influenced by Modesto Junior College coach Rusty Stivers and the Knights’ Jeremy Plaa. Quarterback Ryan Viodes and wide receiver Micah Irwin have already etched their name into the school record books, but collectively, Davis is looking to make noise in its final season in the MMC. The Spartans are just 2-16 in conference play under coach Tim Garcia. Downey has goals of its own. Powered by quarterback Bryce Peterson, the Knights are gunning for their sixth straight MMC title, which would tie a record set by Davis in the 1990s. This opener will test the stamina of the scorekeeper: Downey is averaging 58.5 points, while Davis has scored 28 or more points twice.
Beyer (2-2) vs. Gregori (4-0), at Johansen: Jaguar coach Jason McCoy likes to say his team is “striving and straining” to reach perfection, and you can’t argue their progress in the first month of the season. Gregori has beat all three Merced city schools, including perennial Central California Conference champion Merced. There is a balance to the Jaguars’ offensive attack. Quarterback Bobby Avina has been a model of efficiency. The senior threw two second-half touchdown passes in a 34-8 victory over McNair on Friday. Running back Mason Medrano has provided balance. This will be a unique test, though. Historically, the Patriots’ slow starts have given way to improved performances in league. Look no further than the 2015 season, when Beyer lost four of its first fives games, but forced a three-way split of the crown. With Ben Polack and Brandon Gray, the Patriots have the star power to score points, but can they rattle Avina?
Turlock (2-2) vs. Buhach Colony (2-2), at Atwater High: The Bulldogs begin their title defense with the one program that scared coach James Peterson coming out of the summer. The Thunder’s prospects were lifted with the return of several players and the rise of blue-chip cornerback L.J. Wallace, but the early results have been, well, just OK. Defensively, Buhach Colony has struggled. Downey and Tracy combined to score 109 points in victories over the Thunder, which rebounded with wins over Clovis North and Pacheco. This match-up might favor the Thunder, though, because the Bulldogs’ offense is still evolving under first-year quarterback Jonah Kosakeiwicz. Turlock has impressed with the strength of its defense, led by senior Dustin Grein, a playmaking safety in his third varsity season. The defense accounted for all 14 points in an impressive victory at Clovis three weeks ago, and then held Modesto scoreless in the second half to preserve a 14-7 win. Can Turlock slow down Buhach Colony’s Fly offense? Can Kosakeiwics and the offense find their groove? Those answers may reveal a lot about the hierarchy in the CCC.
To contact reporter James Burns, email email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @jburns1980.