The Trans-Valley League season kicks off tonight with four undefeated teams, one other with a winning record and two sitting at the .500 mark.
Separating the contenders from the rest wasn’t so tough for five area sports writers, but predictions of how the teams will finish were all over the board.
Escalon (3-1), Hilmar (4-0) Ripon (4-0) each received first-place votes, and you can make a good argument for any of them. Based on the final tally, Escalon and Ripon, with two first-place votes apiece, are forecasted to share the conference crown, but Hilmar isn’t too far behind.
Escalon, the defending champion, graduated a talented senior class, but its current group has filled those cleats nicely so far. The Cougars dropped a close 34-32 decision to undefeated Los Banos but bounced back with three straight wins, including last week’s 24-13 over Division III rival Patterson.
Escalon claimed the CIF Division III state championship in 2010 and was considered a near lock to make a repeat appearance. Hilmar, the TVL runner-up, ruined it for the Cougars with a 20-17 victory in the SJS Division IV championship game. The Yellowjackets also lost some of their top playmakers but bring up players from a 9-1 sophomore squad that captured the lower-level league crown.
Ripon boasts arguably the most talented group of returning players, so this could be the year the Indians snap their title drought. Their last championship was earned in 1996 when they conquered the Southern League en route to a section banner.
It’s expected to be a dogfight for the fourth-place spot, which would likely equate to a postseason berth for Hughson (3-0), Modesto Christian (2-2) or Orestimba (4-0). Modesto Christian, which garnered the state’s small-school championship in 2009, is the most battle tested of this bunch having lost to Cardinal Newman, a perennial parochial powerhouse from the Bay Area, and Calaveras.
Hughson opened its season with an impressive 19-0 shutout of SL contender Waterford and gave up only seven points in three nonleague contests. Orestimba’s best win was a 42-14 drubbing of Mariposa, another top team from the SL.
Riverbank (2-2) was minutes away from capping its preleague schedule with a winning record but lost to Linden last week, 33-30. The Bruins lost every conference game a year ago, and with the rest of the league improving they could be in for another rough stretch.