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No clear favorite in TVL
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Hughson has the perfect record.

Escalon and Hilmar have the tradition.

Ripon and Modesto Christian are the most battle-tested of the bunch after grinding through grueling nonleague schedules. 

So who is the favorite to win the Trans-Valley League title this year? There is no consensus frontrunner according to a media poll conducted by the Bulletin.

Hughson, with three first-place votes, is the slight favorite but with Escalon (two), Hilmar (two) and Ripon (one) also getting nods. Only seven points separate Hughson and Ripon, which is fourth in the poll. Modesto Christian is predicted to place fifth but was picked to finish as high as second by one reporter. All agreed that winless Mountain House, making its varsity debut this year, is taking last in this small-school power conference. 

One thing is certain: every week two of the three TVL contests will pit contending teams against each other. 

“It’s up for grabs,” said Ripon head coach Chris Johnson, whose team heads to Hilmar (3-2) on Friday. “There are five teams that legitimately have a shot at and anybody can beat anybody. I was talking to (Escalon coach) Mark Loureiro and he said he doesn’t see anybody going undefeated in league.

“There is a lot of parity. It’s probably closer than I’ve ever seen it.”

Hughson is off to an impressive start and has three shutouts on its résumé, but none of the teams it has faced own winning records and are 8-19 combined. 

Escalon’s only two losses have come against undefeated teams, Patterson and Bear River. Hilmar (3-2) dropped a one-point decision to Mother Lode League power Sonora, which downed Ripon 36-20 a week later. Defending TVL champion Modesto Christian is 1-4, but two of those defeats were by one-score margins on the road and against two larger-school teams — McNair and Vanden — that have a 7-3 combined record.

“You can’t look at nonleague record,” Johnson said. “A lot of times you can, but with the teams that we and Modesto Christian have played it’s not an accurate indicator for the both of us. 

“The preseason schedule gets us ready to play TVL football. I got away from the philosophy that I have to find some patsies to put on our schedule so that we can get six wins and make the playoffs, but if you can’t take first or second in our league you’re probably not going to do well in the playoffs anyway.”

Ripon went into its bye with a notable 28-3 win over defending Northern Section Division III champion Sutter two weeks ago. The Indians upset Valley Oak League co-champ Sierra 34-20 to start the season but followed with successive losses to quality teams — Patterson, Lathrop and Sonora.

“One thing about playing tough teams is that it exposes your weaknesses,” Johnson said. “When you’re beating people 50-0 you don’t see a lot of weaknesses and you’re patting yourself on the back.”

The Indians of course have another tough team lined up for Friday. Senior Daniel Texeira (725 yards, eight TDs passing; 321 yards, five TDs rushing) continues Hilmar’s lineage of quarterbacks, following three-year starter Jonathan O’Brien. Receiver Alex Chavez (473 yards, seven TDs) and running backs Joshua Lee Jennings (483 yards, two TDs) and Cody Rentfro (351 yards, five TDs) are the main weapons around him.

“They’ve got a really good system and they’re really well coached,” Johnson said. “They’re always tough, physical and fast, and they play well at home.”