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Big opening night Friday
FB--VOL Preview file pic 1
Central Catholic star Justin Rice, named the Valley Oak Leagues Offensive Player of the Year in 2014, tries to wiggle free from Sierra lineman Sean Murray (64) while Andrew Guevara (54) looks to complete the tackle. Sierra won 17-14 on Oct. 4, 2014 en route to capturing a share of the league title with Oakdale. Now, Rice and the Raiders appear to be the ones the rest are chasing. - photo by HIME ROMERO/Bulletin file photo

The main event Friday night when Valley Oak League play begins is at The Coral in Oakdale … or is it?

Last year, the VOL treated area football fans with a marquee game every week, but there appears to be no breaks in the schedule for the traditional Big Four of Central Catholic, Manteca, Oakdale and Sierra.

Oakdale (3-0) and Sierra (2-1) square off in a showdown between reigning co-champions, but there are other juicy match-ups worthy of attention. In Modesto, three-time defending small-school state champion Central Catholic welcomes surprising Weston Ranch for a battle of unbeatens. Also, Lathrop (2-1) takes on East Union (3-0) in a contest featuring two programs on the rise after years of struggle, while Manteca (3-0) hosts Kimball (1-2) on homecoming night.

The VOL is 20-4 against nonleague competition with five of its members sporting perfect records.

“The way everyone played in their nonleague schedule, it seems like the VOL is the toughest gauntlet out there,” said first-year Lathrop coach Joey Pirillo. “Any week any team can be beaten. There are going to be some surprises.”

Manteca coach Eric Reis welcomes the new challenges.

“Other schools got better, for sure,” Reis said. “It’s great for our rankings for playoffs. We only have four preseason losses and that will be something that benefits the league. We’re looking at possibly five or six teams making it, and that could really happen this year.”

As much parity as there appears to be in the middle of the pack, there are still heavy favorites in the league. The eight first-place votes were split evenly between Central Catholic and Oakdale (60 points), according to the Manteca Bulletin’s annual VOL media poll. Manteca (47) was predicted to place third by seven of the eight sports writers polled. 

Reis isn’t surprised by the results. He spoke of Central’s impressive athletes such as running back Justin Rice (Fresno State) and quarterback Hunter Petlansky (Columbia), both Division-I commits. Oakdale also returns a ton of talent, and last year’s 48-28 Week 10 drubbing of the Raiders still looms in Reis’ mind.

Central Catholic (31st) and Oakdale (44th) are top-50 teams in the state, according to the MaxPreps computer rankings. 

“In talking to (Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa), depth may be an issue for his team,” Reis said. “In our league there is not a week where you can just show up, you have to be ready to play every week. Depth is a concern and they have a lot of guys playing both ways, but there are some ultra-talented Division I athletes there.

“Oakdale definitely can’t be overlooked. They took Central apart last year and they have a good chunk of their offense back.”

While there is a consensus regarding the top three, predictions are all over the place for the rest of the league. 

Sierra (37 points) deserves respect for its recent run of success, which could be why the Timberwolves hold a narrow lead over East Union (31) for fourth place in the media poll. Weston Ranch (25), Lathrop (18) and Kimball (10) follow. Lathrop turned heads with its 24-13 win over Ripon, which has dropped three in a row after a dominant 34-20 triumph over Sierra. The Spartans have East Union’s attention this week, but no one is looking past EU either. The Lancers have the most impressive win among teams in this group, a 30-27 last-second thriller over Modesto Metro Conference favorite Gregori.

“I’m always optimistic,” said East Union coach Willie Herrera, who already has as many wins as the he did a year ago. “Even in the years we went 1-9 I always gave us a shot. If we can play our best football week in and week out we can be competitive in this league, but it’s going to take consistency.”