The road to the Valley Oak League championship still goes through The Corral.
According a media poll conducted by The Bulletin, Oakdale High is favored to garner a seventh straight title despite losing 10 starters on both sides of scrimmage.
So why the vote of confidence? Answer: The Corral, where the Mustangs have lost just twice to league opponents in 14th-year head coach Trent Merzon’s tenure. This year they will have visits from their two chief challengers — Manteca and Sierra, predicted to place second and third, respectively — on consecutive weeks.
Elsewhere, Hughson has a narrow edge over reigning champion Ripon in the Trans-Valley League poll, while Le Grand was picked unanimously to earn its fifth Southern League crown in a row.
Prep reporters from Black Hat Football, Merced Sun-Star, Oakdale Leader, Ripon Record, Riverbank News, Sonora Union Democrat and Tracy Press also participated in the poll.
Valley Oak League
No VOL team was tested as much as Oakdale (1-2) in nonleague play.
Its record doesn’t look so bad considering that the losses came against top teams — longtime rival Turlock and Northern Section power Enterprise — by a grand total of three points. The Mustangs are coming off a surprising 40-9 blowout of Paraclete (Lancaster), a successful program out of Southern California. And they played all three games without promising sophomore quarterback Adam Olsen, who has been out with an injury
Sonora checks in with no victories, putting the Wildcats in a tough position to make the playoffs. They can’t be counted out, however, with their physical triple-option offense and hard-hitting defense. Like Oakdale, Sonora has close losses against tough opposition (Turlock, Paradise, Calaveras). The ’Cats are in danger of an 0-4 start, as their final tour in of the VOL begins at Manteca tonight.
Kimball (1-2) of Tracy enters its fourth year in the VOL and aims to shed the “best of the rest” label behind the traditional “big four.” The Jaguars were predicted to finish no higher than fifth but could be a threat to the league’s upper echelon. They played still-undefeated Patterson tough in Week 1, taking a 12-0 lead before falling, 28-19. Kimball looks to make a statement on Sierra’s homecoming night.
Manteca and Sierra, both 2-1, are still considered the best of the Manteca Unified schools. They square off Week 9 on Nov. 1 in what has become the Manteca area’s must-watch rivalry game. They each have shared titles with Oakdale in recent years — Manteca in 2010, and Sierra in 2009.
Weston Ranch (1-2), East Union (1-2) and Lathrop (0-3) have all showed signs of improvement. Lathrop hosts Weston Ranch for homecoming and the inaugural Battle of I-5 rivalry.
Widely considered one of the best small-school conferences in California, the TVL has routinely produced section contenders and even two state championships in recent years.
Ripon (4-0), winners of 18 straight in the regular season, will have a tough time defending its title but is more than capable of doing so.
Hughson (3-0), though, is considered the favorite. Well, not by much. Each team received three first-place votes, with another going to the dynamic Crusaders of Modesto Christian (3-1). A mere two points separate Hughson and Ripon.
Hughson may have one of the region’s best tandem of running backs in seniors Tanner Duron and Kyle Kerlee. Modesto Christian certainly boasts the league’s most athletic quarterback in Anthony Brooks, who is backed by hard-running Andre Edwards.
Only now do we get to Hilmar (4-0) and Escalon (2-2), which speaks to the depth of this league. They rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in the TVL poll, though it wouldn’t surprise anyone if either is holding the crown by year’s end.
Riverbank (2-2) and Orestimba (0-4) round out the TVL. Orestimba has struggled mightily without heralded RB Steven Machado (hamstring), who played his first game of the season last week in a loss to Gustine.
Ripon Christian (2-1) announced itself as a legitimate player in the SL last season when it snapped Le Grand’s 35-game conference winning streak (dating back to 2008) and forced a three-way share of the championship with Waterford in Week 10.
While the Knights, among others, could very well still have a say, Le Grand (3-0) is once again an overwhelming favorite.
Mariposa (3-0) entertains RC right out of the gate. The Bears fell two points shy of the Knights in the SL poll but have a chance to prove their worth tonight.
Delhi (3-0) is the third team in the SL that is still undefeated. Waterford (1-2) could still be a top-four contender with two-way standout Jesus Vega back.
Gustine (1-2), Denair (0-3) and Turlock Christian (0-3) are expected to duke it out from the bottom of the standings.