High School Football

Cortez: Modesto Christian biggest surprise halfway through prep football season

Every high school football team in the Stanislaus District is at least halfway through its schedule (with the exception of Pitman, which couldn’t find a replacement for Week 4 opponent Pleasant Grove), so this seems like the logical time to take a look at some of the biggest surprises of 2014.

Each of the eight conferences in the district has at least one team that’s overachieving.

Davis, Pitman, Sierra, Livingston, Modesto Christian, Sonora, Gustine and Stone Ridge Christian all are worthy of being called surprises this year; some more than others, naturally. But of those eight teams, Modesto Christian may be the biggest overachiever of the year.

After winning the small-school state title in 2009, the Crusaders went 20-23 over the next four seasons under Steve Gleason, who took over when Mike Parsons left for Clovis West (Fresno) prior to the 2010 campaign.

Parsons is back and so is the winning magic. Modesto Christian is 4-1 and very well could be undefeated.

In a 23-22 season-opening loss to Capital Christian (Sacramento), ranked third in Cal-Hi Sports’ Division IV Northern California bowl rankings – behind top-ranked Central Catholic and No. 2 McClymonds (Oakland), the participants in the past two D-IV NorCal bowls – the Crusaders made a goal-line stand against the Cougars, only to fumble the ball at the 1, allowing the Cougars to get the TD they’d just missed out on.

“I’m looking forward to playing them again,” said Parsons, who could get a rematch with Capital Christian in the D-VI playoffs (for purposes of the NorCal bowl, Capital Christian is in the D-IV rankings). “I told the kids, ‘I don’t know if either of us can beat the other team twice.’ Even though it was a tough loss to swallow, I think it will help us be a little more fired up, a little more focused.”

Despite having just 18 players on their roster – the Crusaders started the season with 21 but lost three to injury, two for the entire season – MC has defeated D-I, D-II, D-III and D-IV teams. And the Crusaders didn’t just win, they blasted those larger teams.

“I’ve learned that you’ve got to have talent, but you have to have chemistry, too,” Parsons said. “We have a small group, but everybody gets along and we’ve got a good thing going.”

If Modesto Christian takes the prize for biggest surprise of the year, Davis High gets the silver medal.

The Spartans have struggled in recent years due mainly to declining student enrollment and a general lack of interest in the program. But first-year coach Tim Garcia, a graduate of Davis High who went on to play at Modesto JC and the University of Mary in Bismark, N.D., has helped restore a sense of pride in the Spartans’ rich football tradition.

His players have bought in and they jumped out to a 4-0 start before dropping the Modesto Metro Conference opener Sept. 26. The Spartans have a big game this week against Gregori, coming off a 27-20 win over Beyer last week.

In the Central California Conference, Merced and Turlock were expected to be the class of the league while Pitman was thought to be headed for a rebuilding year. The CCC opens league play this week and the Bears and Bulldogs may very well earn the conference’s two automatic playoff berths come Nov. 7.

But if the Pride are indeed rebuilding, then they’ve decided to do it on the fly. At 4-0, Pitman is one of three remaining unbeaten teams in the Stanislaus District. The Pride will be tested Friday when they host Buhach Colony.

Sierra, which has reached the playoffs five of the previous six seasons under Jeff Harbison, has confounded the experts by the way it has dominated opponents this year. The Timberwolves (5-0) won their first five games by an average of 44 points per game. And even though they only squeaked out a 17-14 win over Central Catholic, it goes down as their most impressive victory to date.

Most thought Harbison’s Timberwolves would be good – though they were picked by coaches to finish fourth in the rugged Valley Oak League – but nobody thought they’d be this good.

Livingston reached the playoffs just three years ago, but fell on hard times last year when it finished 1-9. Under new coach Alex Gonzalez, the Wolves are 4-1 and were just minutes away from beating Hilmar (they lost 10-7) and a perfect 5-0 mark.

After consecutive seasons missing the playoffs, Sonora was demoted to the Mother Lode League when the Sac-Joaquin Section realigned this year. Well, like a Nuke LaLoosh fastball, the Wildcats have announced their presence with authority. After a respectable, season-opening loss to Oakdale, Sonora has run off five consecutive wins, including a 2-0 league start in which it outscored Argonaut and Calaveras by a combined 92-0.

After four consecutive 1-9 seasons, Gustine made strides last season by finishing 4-6. But nobody saw this coming. The Redskins are 4-1 with a 22-19 win over four-time reigning Division V champ Le Grand to their credit. Orestimba is also 4-1 and for the first time in years, this longtime rivalry could decide the conference championship.

Stone Ridge Christian finished 5-5 last year and sneaked into the Division VI playoffs, where it was summarily dispatched 55-20 by Ripon Christian and finished 5-6. It was the fifth straight sub-.500 finish for SRC. But the Knights are 4-1 this year and 2-0 in league, and are looking like a good bet to run the table in the Central California Athletic Alliance.