Mark Loureiro closed the door to his office, drowning out the chatter and music bouncing off the walls of his locker room.
The Escalon coach steered the interview toward a worn couch along a long wall. The only thing deeper than its seats was the conversation that ensued.
With five legitimate title contenders, the Trans-Valley League will present a challenging slate of games each week, beginning with Friday’s opening round.
The last couple of years, the TVL has been brutal. You’re proud to play in this league because it represents the finest small-school football there is, but it’s so difficult week in and week out.
Reyn Franca, Hughson football coach, on the depth and talent in the Trans-Valley League
“You talk about Escalon and Hughson for a championship,” Loureiro said. “There are three other teams that can be a factor in this thing, also. I don’t want to leave out Ripon, Modesto Christian and Hilmar. This is the most I’ve seen the TVL this even. You can roll them out of a hat, and I think this will be the first year someone will win the league without going undefeated.”
Each program is worthy of such praise. All five programs are ranked in The Bee’s small-school poll.
No. 7 Modesto Christian (1-4) is the defending champion, but the Crusaders have been humbled by a brutal non-league schedule. So, too, has No. 6 Ripon (2-3), which has losses to Patterson, Lathrop and No. 1 Sonora on its ledger.
No. 3 Escalon and No. 5 Hilmar are both 3-2 and have played well in losses to Sac-Joaquin Section finalists. The Cougars lost at home to Bear River, the Division V darling, while the Yellowjackets were edged by Sonora, the Division IV runner-up.
Second-ranked Hughson is the only undefeated team at 5-0, and the Huskies’ return to prominence has come with national fanfare. Senior fullback Justice Futch became an Internet sensation after he bowled over a Summerville safety and dragged another en route to a 46-yard touchdown.
The footage has generated more than 260,000 views. A few of those clicks belong to Loureiro.
“They run the ball right at you. That big fullback Futch is a load,” Loureiro said, his eyes widening. “I’ve seen enough highlights on him. He can carry a whole line down the field, and he’s a great blocker for (Cesar) Cuevas, who is a very quick and elusive back.
“You’ve got to make stops and you’ve got to make plays,” he added. “The people so far who have played them have not been able to do that. We’re hoping to be the first team that can at least slow them down.”
The TVL has never been this tight or this deep. So say the old guards – Loureiro and Hughson’s Reyn Franca, who has returned to the helm after serving as an assistant.
In a media poll conducted by the Manteca Bulletin, Hughson (38 points, three first-place votes) was picked to win the Trans-Valley League, edging Escalon (37/2), Hilmar (32/2), Ripon (31/1) and Modesto Christian (23). Every participating media member agreed Mountain House would finish last.
The two combined to win eight section titles in two divisions from 1990 to 2000. Back then, Franca said the league was divided into an upper- and lower-end, much like the Valley Oak League today.
As it’s currently constructed, the Trans-Valley League offers only one favorable match-up: winless Mountain House, a program playing its first games at the varsity level.
“The last couple of years, the TVL has been brutal,” Franca said. “You’re proud to play in this league because it represents the finest small-school football there is, but it’s so difficult week in and week out.”
Case in point: Opening week. Hughson travels to Escalon on Friday, while Hilmar welcomes Ripon. Modesto Christian opens at home against Mountain House.
Hughson’s perfect start has stirred up old memories, while revealing an honest respect between coaches. While Franca stepped away from football following the last of his four section titles in 2000, Loureiro went on to become the section’s all-time winningest coach.
Franca admires Loureiro’s ability to grow with the game. His program has continued to win, even as the demands have changed.
“Mark has been a huge source of putting this league on the map with their caliber of football,” Franca said. “Here’s a quote: You’re not going to out-coach Mark Loureiro. You have to play mistake-free football and hope your kids bring their ‘A’ game, but you won’t ever out-coach or out-fox him.”
Hughson will test its luck. The Huskies have gashed their opponents with a two-headed ground attack. Cuevas has a team-high 12 touchdowns and has rushed for more than 100 yards four times. The 5-foot-11, 235-pound Futch is averaging nearly 100 yards per game, with six touchdowns.
“Hughson is a solid football team. One thing I’ve noticed this year that I haven’t seen in the past, they’re playing with a purpose,” Loureiro said. “They seem to be a lot more organized and specialized in the things they do. With Reyn’s organization, coming back into the program, it’s given them a little bit of stability.”
8 The number of Sac-Joaquin Section titles won by Hughson’s Reyn Franca and Escalon’s Mark Loureiro between 1990 and 2000
Escalon is buoyed by an offensive line that has played together since seniors Logan Widmer, Daniel Gonzalez and Tim Wallace were in sixth grade. Twins Bo and Blue Capps are juniors.
Their careers began with a Pop Warner championship with the Escalon Outlaws. Widmer believes Friday could be the first step toward a storybook finish for a line Loureiro believes could be one of the best in school history.
Franca understands the challenge awaiting his boys at Engel Field.
“Any game against a quality opponent, it’s what goes down between the guys up front that will determine the outcome of the game,” he said. “Some teams can play over the top, but in this league, you’re going to get the ball run at you. With Escalon, you know what you’re facing. Can you meet the challenge?”
This Week’s Games
Modesto Metro Conference
Gregori at Davis (MJC), 7 p.m.
Enochs at Beyer (Gregori), 7 p.m.
Johansen at Downey, 7:15 p.m.
Central California Conference
Atwater vs. Merced, 7 p.m.
Golden Valley at Turlock, 7 p.m.
Pitman at Buhach Colony, 7 p.m.
Valley Oak League
Kimball at Central Catholic, 7 p.m.
Lathrop at Oakdale, 7 p.m.
Manteca at Sierra, 7 p.m.
East Union at Weston Ranch, 7:15 p.m.
Western Athletic Conference
Ceres at Patterson, 7 p.m.
Los Banos at El Capitan, 7 p.m.
Livingston at Pacheco, 7 p.m.
Hughson at Escalon, 7:30 p.m.
Mountain House at Modesto Christian, 7:30 p.m.
Ripon at Hilmar, 7:30 p.m.
Mother Lode League
Argonaut at Calaveras, 7:30 p.m.
Bret Harte at Linden, 7:30 p.m.
Sonora at Summerville, 7:30 p.m.
Delhi at Le Grand, 7:30 p.m.
Gustine at Denair, 7:30 p.m.
Orestimba at Mariposa, 7:30 p.m.
Ripon Christian at Waterford, 7:30 p.m.
Central California Athletic Alliance
Millennium at Brookside Christian, 7 p.m.
Riverbank at Amador, 7 p.m.
Central California Athletic Alliance
Big Valley Christian at Turlock Christian (at Hilmar) 7 p.m.