Central Catholic High football coach Roger Canepa stunned the crowd at Sunday's team banquet with an announcement.
“You want to be the best,” he said, “you have to play the best.”
Historically, that superlative fits only one program: De La Salle, a seven-time CIF State champion (2007, 2009-2012, 2014-15).
The Raiders have entered into a two-year agreement with those mighty Spartans, beginning with a road trip to Concord next fall. Central Catholic and De La Salle, the only programs in state history to win four consecutive state bowls, will play Aug. 24.
De La Salle has appeared in 11 consecutive CIF State Bowls, including nine straight Open Division finals. In the fall, the Spartans lost to Mater Dei in the Open Division, 52-21.
“It’s a privilege to play them, but we're going into it to win. We don't just want to play them – we want to beat them, too,” Canepa said. “We took this game because we want to see how good we are.
“I don't think that anyone is scared. It was more like, ‘OK, it’s go time.’ They were all pretty excited. If you're a kid in this program, that’s a good game film to show the scouts. It’s a good game film to show anybody. They’re a class program.”
Scheduling these games was “the next step” in their evolving relationship, Canepa said. The Raiders are regulars at De La Salle's summer 7-on-7 tournament and the coaching staffs have developed a kinship.
“This was the next step. Coach (Billy) Hylla called and they said, ‘Hey, I think this would be a good game.’ It's like the big brother playing the little brother,” Canepa said. “They've been in the Open Division and I don’t know if anybody has been better than us the last six years.”
De La Salle visits David Patton Field in 2019, the final year of the home-and-home contract.
“It will be the biggest game in school history when they come to Central,” Canepa said. “We’ll pack the place.”
De La Salle headlines the Raiders' revamped non-conference schedule. Central Catholic dropped Archbishop Riordan and Marin Catholic, and added Lincoln of Stockton on a two-year contract. The Raiders will host the Trojans on Sept. 7. Canepa said he is still searching for a Week 0 opponent on Aug. 17.
With the addition of De La Salle, the Raiders have created a daring four-week gauntlet that includes the Spartans (Aug. 24), Holy Bowl rival St. Mary’s (Aug. 31), Lincoln (Sept. 7) and a trip to Manteca (Sept. 14), the reigning Sac-Joaquin Section Division III champion, to start Valley Oak League play.
The non-conference opponents were hand-picked, Canepa said, with a purpose in mind. Despite their small-school enrollment (375), Central Catholic was moved up to Division II for the Sac-Joaquin Section postseason in 2016, one year after it won its fourth consecutive CIF State Bowl.
Since then, the Raiders have reached the second round (2016, losing to Jesuit) and semifinal (2017, losing to Del Oro).
“That’s where people start to question, ‘Did they push the envelope too much, or does he know what he’s doing?’ This is the toughest schedule ever at Central Catholic. It might be the toughest preseason schedule in Stanislaus District history, too,” Canepa said. “My thing is you want to see how good you are. We always talk about competing.
“We’ve never complained about in Division II. We’ve accepted it. Now we're trying to figure out how to win it. This is about putting ourselves in that position. We need to get over that hump, and every year I believe we’re gaining on it. That’s why we’re doing this. We’re trying to make our team better for the stretch run.”
De La Salle takes on a Stanislaus District team for the first time in 26 years.
In 1991 and 1992, the Spartans played a home-and-home with Merced, which had won a mythical state championship in 1990. That year, De La Salle was ranked No. 2 in California.
The Spartans won both meetings with the Bears, 35-21 and 34-14, respectively. The latter began De La Salle’s national record 151-game winning streak between 1992 and 2004 under legendary coach Bob Ladouceur, who retired in 2012 with a career record of 399-25-3. The winning streak more than doubled the previous national mark of 72 victories held by Hudson (Mich.) High from 1968-75.
Merced may have been a year too late. In 1990, Merced captured the attention of Cal-Hi Sports with running backs Anthony Volsan (USC sprinter), Jhay Roland (San Diego State) and Stephon Jackson (Washington State), all of whom earned Division I scholarship offers.
Canepa believes his team will compete with the Spartans, who, among their many remarkable feats, have also won 26 straight North Coast Section crowns. The Raiders return quarterback Kyle Jackson, three of their five starting offensive linemen, including all-VOL selection Chris Mendoza, defensive backs Sithri Price, Justin Traina and Adrian Cuevas, and will feature four capable running backs: Kyle Jacklich, Dawaiian McNeely, Dayton Magana and Minaya Olivo.
“I really like this group,” he said, "just as long as the junior varsity and varsity mesh. When you put them together, I think there's enough pieces to battle anybody.”
Central Catholic's 2018 schedule
Week 0, Aug. 17: Open
Week 1, Aug. 24: at De La Salle
Week 2, Aug. 31: vs. St. Mary’s^
Week 3, Sept. 7: vs. Lincoln
Week 4, Sept. 14: at Manteca*
Week 5, Sept. 21: at Sierra
Week 6, Sept. 28: vs. East Union
Week 7, Oct 5: at Weston Ranch
Week 8, Oct. 12: Bye
Week 9, Oct. 19: at Kimball
Week 10, Oct. 26: at Oakdale^
* Start of Valley Oak League play
^ Rivalry games