The league schedule kicks off for area squads this week, and there are already title and postseason implications in play.
In the Valley Oak League, winless — yes, winless, but more on that later — Central Catholic begins its championship defense Friday at Manteca (3-1), which hasn’t beaten the Raiders in five tries since their return to the VOL.
East Union (3-1) has an even longer slump to bust out of when it faces Oakdale (2-2) at The Corral, where the Mustangs are tough to beat. Then there’s upstart Sierra (4-0), the only team in league still boasting a perfect record. The Timberwolves await Kimball (3-1), another much-improved team.
Weston Ranch (1-2) will have its second bye of the season with Oakdale visiting on Sept. 27. The Cougars were also off for Week 1, as they could not find an opponent to fill in for either date.
The Trans-Valley League made some serious noise in recent weeks, but none more so than Escalon — one of three 4-0 teams. Escalon is coming off a shocking 49-20 beat-down of Downey, one of the top large-school programs in the region.
The Cougars gets to bask in their big win for another week as they coast through their bye. The two other TVL heavyweights duke it out in the meantime, as defending co-champion Ripon (4-0) locks up with reigning state titlist Hilmar (4-0). On the other side of Highway 99, Hughson hosts Livingston in an interesting match-up between 3-1 teams.
Lathrop begins its second campaign in the Western Athletic Conference and is in a must-win situation at Ceres. Both teams are 0-3, but Lathrop faced three VOL opponents with a combined 10-2 record. Los Banos also goes into conference action without a win but with a non-league lineup of tough opponents that includes Hilmar.
Grace Davis (3-0) and Johansen (2-1) are off to surprising starts and are the only WAC teams with winning records. Tri-champions Pacheco, Los Banos and Mountain House are 1-8.
Defending Southern Athletic League champion Ripon Christian (2-1) suffered its lone loss against Grace Davis, but some bad breaks helped lead to the 20-19 result. The Knights have turned it around since and are rested going into their league opener against Waterford (2-1), a school they seem to have a growing rivalry with. Division VII-AA state champion Denair is among five SAL teams standing at 2-1, and the Coyotes face one of the others in Le Grand.
Here’s a closer look at Week 4 matchups in the area:
East Union at Oakdale: The Mustangs ran their win streak to 25 against East Union last season, but the 35-26 final was more competitive than most of their previous meetings.
Could this be the year? The Lancers are confident following three consecutive victories, matching their win total from a year ago. They warded off surprising Johansen last week 21-14 after blowing out winless Mountain House and Bear Creek.
Oakdale’s two losses have both come at home —albeit to Division I-A state champ Liberty (4-0) of Brentwood and Salinas-based powerhouse Palma (2-1) in close games.
Central Catholic at Manteca: Decimated by injuries, Central Catholic staggers into the VOL with more questions than answers.
Already low on numbers throughout the program, the Raiders have promoted JV players and forfeited tonight’s freshman game against the Buffaloes. Two-way standout and NCAA Division I prospect Minaya Olivo missed last week’s loss at Upland after going down with an apparent head injury in the Holy Bowl loss to St. Mary’s.
Another loss came at the hands of De La Salle, a national power and the most storied program in Northern California.
Kimball at Sierra: Sierra is sizzling, but the competition will get tougher starting this week.
The Timberwolves crushed their first four opponents by an average margin of 42 points. Kimball will be their toughest opponent so far. Sophomore Nicholas Coronado has proven up to the task at quarterback, and he’s surrounded by talented seniors such as 6-foot-6 Cal commit Kaleo Ballungay.
It doesn’t get any easier for the T’wolves, who next play Central Catholic, Oakdale and East Union all on the road before returning home to square off with Manteca.
Ripon at Hilmar: Ripon wasn’t at its best last week at Calaveras and was minus a few key starters, but the Indians’ continued their early-season roll with the 24-0 shutout.
It’s the closest thing to a challenge Ripon has faced — until now. Hilmar may no longer have 1,000-yard rushers Isaac Sharpe and Justin Rentfro, but its top receiver, 6-3 Aiden Azevedo, returns and is joined by a junior class that went 10-0 at the JV level.
The Yellowjackets captured the CIF Division VI-AA crown last year after losing to Ripon and Modesto Christian by five total points in league.
Lathrop at Ceres: The toughest part of the schedule is behind the Spartans as they venture into the WAC season.
They came out of their bye week and were dealt a 50-6 loss to Sierra. Lathrop was competitive for a quarter but could not overcome its mounting mistakes.
Ceres provides an opportunity to begin a turnaround. The short-handed Bulldogs have not scored a point since their 55-13 zero-week loss to rival Central Valley, losing to Lodi 51-0 and West, 27-0.
Lathrop travels to Pacheco next, ending a streak of three road games.
Ripon Christian at Waterford: Last season, Ripon Christian started league and the playoffs with landslide victories over the Wildcats.
The Knights will see some of their chief rivals in the opening stretch of the Southern League, as state champ Denair visits next Friday looking to avenge its lone 2018 loss — a 35-7 trouncing. But first they’ll try and put the clamps on emerging dual-threat quarterback Ruben Rios, who has thrown for 455 yards and four touchdowns and run for 260 and five.
Waterford survived a late charge to edge Big Valley Christian on homecoming last week, 28-27.