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Sizing up high school football title contenders

Football's preseason is over, and for six of the area's eight leagues, conference play begins today or Friday.

Some of the area's preseason favorites have stumbled out of the gate, so we're going to take a look at each league's top contenders after their preseason.

MMC: The Modesto Metro Conference is going to be a wide-open race.

Surprising Downey (4-1) is the MMC's only team that had a winning preseason. The Knights have experienced a rejuvenation under new head coach Jeremy Plaa, but most of the MMC has played a tougher schedule.

Modesto and Johansen, in particular, have faced a tough preseason slate, but they're both 1-4 and neither one has a quality win.

Beyer, also 1-4, shared the league title with Johansen last year, and could turn the title race upside-down with a homecoming victory over Downey at Johansen on Friday.

WAC: At the beginning of the season, the Western Athletic Conference looked like a two-team race, but we'll go ahead and call it three for the moment.

Central Catholic (3-1-1) and Patterson (5-0) are ranked among the top three teams in the state in Division IV. Their Oct. 26 game at Central Catholic is already highly anticipated.

Hilmar (4-1) could be in the mix as well. Should the Yellowjackets compete well against Central Catholic on Friday night, they could rise up and surprise Patterson down the road.

TVL: Escalon (4-1) has improved markedly after the return of fullback Josh May (knee surgery) and is the Trans-Valley League's top contender. It's been five years since the Cougars have won a league title.

For the first time in a while, Hughson (4-1) is also a contender. Hughson and Escalon hooked up for some great battles during the 1990s, and their Oct. 26 game could be their biggest of this decade.

Defending league champion Modesto Christian (4-1) appears to be back in the mix as well after moving shifty quarterback Isaiah Burse to the shotgun formation.

SL: If the MMC isn't the most competitive league in the Stanislaus District, the Southern League is.

Mariposa (4-1) enters as the favorite, despite the Grizzlies' 52-14 dismantling last week by host Modesto Christian. The Grizzlies play at home against Turlock Christian (5-0) Friday night in a key early game. The Eagles are the area's biggest surprise undefeated team.

Waterford (4-1), defending champion Denair (3-2) and Le Grand (2-3) are also contenders. One week before MC took care of Mariposa, the Crusaders needed a last-minute field goal to beat Le Grand 17-14.

MLL: With four teams leaving the preseason at 3-2, there isn't a clear-cut favorite in the Mother Lode League. Or is there?

Calaveras (3-2) handed Waterford its only loss and nearly defeated Patterson last week. The Redskins have dominated the MLL for years and are the top contender simply by that fact alone.

But they could face tough competition from arch-rival Bret Harte (3-2) and Amador (3-2) as well. The Bullfrogs, however, enter league play with two consecutive losses.

HCL: The Harvest Christian League is always the toughest to judge, because many of its teams play out of the area.

We're giving the nod to undefeated and much-improved Stone Ridge Christian, as well as defending league and Division VII section champion Calvary Temple (2-3). Big Valley Christian (3-2) has been a nice surprise as well.

CCC: The Central California Conference has been contesting league games for two weeks now, and there's no question who the favorite is. Merced (5-0, 1-0 CCC) jumped into the Division I state rankings at No. 15, and had few problems in beating Pitman 30-7.

Los Banos (2-0 CCC) is alone in first place, and the Tigers play Golden Valley (1-0 CCC) to see which is the next team to try to challenge the Bears.

VOL: We could find out where the Valley Oak League title game will be played Friday night, after Sonora and Manteca face off. The winner of that game will meet Oakdale for what will most likely decide the league title. Manteca is at Oakdale next Friday, and Oakdale is at Sonora for their traditional regular season finale.

Will DeBoard's high schools column appears Thursdays. E-mail him at wdeboard@modbee.com, write him at P.O. Box 5256, Modesto, CA 95352-5256, call 578-2300 or fax 238-4551.

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