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COUNTDOWN TO ZERO

Looking ahead to the 2010 high school football season

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COUNTDOWN TO ZERO

Photos by HIME ROMERO and JONAMAR JACINTO/


POSTED August 26, 2010 2:59 a.m.

School is in session and cooler weather is on the horizon.

It must be football season.

But wait, it’s August.

That’s right, folks, football now begins two weeks earlier than we’re used to, so if you have the feeling that the season is fast approaching, well, it is.

The countdown to kickoff begins now.

5 seniors poised for breakout season
Matt Burrows (Manteca QB; 6-1, 241) is Manteca’s unquestioned starter after limited, yet effective, playing time in 2009. Burrows, 20-0 as Manteca’s starter in the lower levels, has a big arm but also exudes all the intangible traits a team needs out of its offensive leader.

TeeJay Gordon (East Union QB; 5-10, 165) may be the best athlete in the area, and he is set up to have a terrific season. EU implemented the spread offense to suit the talented Gordon, who is shielded by an experienced line and surrounded by impressive skill players.

Alex Gustin (Ripon QB/RB; 5-7, 155) is the focal point of the Indians’ hybrid Wing-T/spread offense. After shouldering much of the load in 2009, he should be even more dangerous this year with the addition of big-bodied Jake McCreath (QB/TE) and fleet-footed running backs from the sophomore level.

Isaac Norman (Ripon Christian RB/DB; 5-9, 170) is one of the area’s most versatile offensive weapons who has a chance to put up some gaudy numbers in the Southern League after earning all-conference in the tougher Trans Valley League.

Michael Timmins (Manteca WR/DB; 6-2, 184) is possibly the best player you’ve never heard of, that is unless you followed Manteca High’s baseball team last spring. A center fielder in baseball, he is a natural fit at free safety, and his awesome combination of size, speed and hands will be put to good use offensively.

4’s a crowd
It’s tough to determine a favorite in the Valley Oak and Trans Valley leagues this early in the season, but in both conferences it comes down to four teams.

Manteca (three titles), Oakdale (six) and Sonora (two) ruled the VOL for most of the 2000s. In 2005, Weston Ranch was a part of a three-way share of the title with Manteca and Sonora but hasn’t been a factor since.

The VOL’s traditional “Big 3” is now joined by Sierra, which qualified for its first postseason run in 2008 and won a share of its first title in 2009 with no signs of slowing down because of the success of its lower-level squads.

The longtime powerhouses of the TVL include Escalon, Hilmar, Hughson and Ripon. Hughson has struggled in recent seasons, while Hilmar returns to the fold after a four-year stint in the recently-formed Western Athletic Conference.

Escalon has long been one of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s top small-school programs with seven Sac-Joaquin Section championships. Hilmar is an instant front-runner with five section championships, the most recent coming in 2008. Ripon has consistently been on the playoff bubble, and that shouldn’t change this year.

The fourth horse in the 2010 race? Modesto Christian is coming off a 15-0 season punctuated by a state championship in the small-school division.

3 big rivalry games
Ripon Christian at Ripon (Week 2)
Yes, Ripon has won — and won big by an average 37.25-point margin — since the battle for the annual Ripon Bowl Rivalry Trophy began in 2006.

Let’s face it, Ripon has the tradition, student body and depth of talent that RC, with its enrollment of around 250 compared to Ripon’s 938, does not.

For now, this is a bigger game for RC. Now free from the torturous beatings from Escalon and Modesto Christian in the Trans Valley League, Ripon remains as RC’s opportunity to take its best shot at one of the big boys.

A competitive football rivalry would garner more support from the community for both programs, so it’s up to RC to close the gap between itself and the school that is a Hail Mary pass away from its own campus.

Lathrop at East Union (Week 4)
It’s a perfect matchup to start the Valley Oak League season for the Manteca Unified rivals, who are a 4 ½-mile trip on Lathrop Road from each other.

Both have something to prove this year. East Union is seeking its first playoff berth since 1992, and Lathrop can set the tone for future generations by making the postseason in its first year with seniors.

The first-ever meeting between the two ended in a 37-7 win for EU last year. It’s a chance for the Spartans of Lathrop to exact a little revenge, but there are obviously bigger fish to fry for both squads.  There are winnable non-league games for both heading into this contest, which, if won, would be a great head start before diving into rest of the brutal VOL schedule.

Sierra at Manteca (Week 6)
It had been a while since a crosstown game in Manteca meant something, but that changed in 2008. Manteca was expected to compete for its fourth Valley Oak League championship of the decade, but a 7-6 upset loss to Sierra ended up dropping the Buffaloes entirely out of the playoff picture. It was also Sierra’s first win over Manteca since 2000.

The 2008 stunner made last year’s showdown arguably the most hyped between the two schools.

Sierra took exception to some of Manteca’s pre-game antics, which include running through a banner that read, “This is our town,” and rolled to a 23-0 lead. The Buffaloes came roaring back, but their second-half effort was for naught in a 23-15 defeat.

The lower-level contests between the two schools have also been competitive the last few years, so this year’s meeting, which may have title implications, could be another classic.


2 must-see non-league contests
Tracy at Manteca (Week 2)
The old-school rivalry was revived in 2007, and the new-school players have made each contest worth watching. Manteca won the first one, 23-13, and made it back-to-back with a 27-22 victory.

Last year’s game was a doozy.

Depray Celestine’s 35-yard touchdown on fourth-and-7 with 5 minutes remaining sealed Tracy’s 35-20 victory. Celestine’s cousin, Marquis Miller, led Manteca with 18 carries, 131 yards and a touchdown.

Tracy went on to claim the San Joaquin Athletic Association championship while going 10-0 in the regular season for the first time since 1986.

This year, both teams return big offensive linemen and terrific quarterbacks in Manteca’s Matt Burrows and Tracy’s Casey Wichman.

Granada at Sierra (Week 2)
Granada and Sierra last met on 2004 and 05, with the Matadors of Livermore winning both.

Last year, two star-studded casts clashed in Livermore. Sierra came up on the winning end, 27-26, using a 12-play drive to eat up the final 7 minutes, 6 seconds.

The game featured two electric tailbacks in Sierra’s Jarrod Daniels and Granada’s George Atkinson III, but  the night belonged to Sierra mighty-mite Jonathan Davis. The quarterback produced 210 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-22 passing and kept the Matador defense off balanced with his work on the ground, as he also grinded out 114 yards on 20 carries.

It was the first of many big victories for Sierra. Granada ended up 4-6 but plays in the North Coast Section’s toughest conference, the East Bay Athletic League, which is also home to national power De La Salle.

Atkinson and his brother, Joshua, the sons of former Oakland Raider great George Atkinson are back and are being recruited by several Pac-10 schools.

1 bold prediction

Lathrop, in its first season with a senior class, qualifies for the postseason.

Hey, it’s happened before around here. And it wouldn’t a bold prediction if it wasn’t bordering crazy.

In 2005, both Weston Ranch (Valley Oak League) and Ripon Christian (Mountain Valley League) won league titles and advanced to the postseason in their second varsity seasons.

Last year’s 0-9 record may not give you any indication that Lathrop is due for a big one-year turnaround, but consider that of the nine teams the Spartans faced in their independent schedule, six were playoff qualifiers.

And if certain breaks fell their way, the Spartans may have had a few wins under their belt with close losses to Weston Ranch (27-7), Big Valley Christian (22-13) and Soledad (28-14).

Also consider that in the first year of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s new playoff format, four teams made it with 4-6 records, while five others went 5-5.

Anything’s possible.

There are five teams on the schedule that Lathrop will surely have trouble with, starting with small-school power Escalon in Week 1. Then there are Manteca, Oakdale, Sierra and Sonora in the Valley Oak League.

East Union and Weston Ranch will give the Spartans a good test, but the rest — McClatchy and Highlands in non-league, and first-year varsity Kimball on Week 10 — are very winnable.

Win the three that they should, win the two that they can and maybe shock the world in one another and voila!
 

0-week madness
“Zero week,” or “Week zero” to some, isn’t completely new in Sac-Joaquin Section.

For the most part, only teams that could not find a Week-1 opponent were allowed to start practicing earlier than the rest of the schools in the section to prepare for a zero-week contest.

But with the California Interscholastic Federation State Championship Bowl Games entering their fifth year in existence, the section is allowing its schools to practice and play their first games around the same time the rest of the state is.

This year, we have three teams playing in zero-week contests on Friday, with the rest kicking off the year on Sept. 3. In the past, seasons typically started during the second week of September.

With Week zero now in place, the regular season consists of 11 weeks, but section teams are still allowed a maximum of 10 games. That means zero-week participants must have a bye on their schedules.

So what does this entail?

In short, more football. And that is not a bad thing.
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