East Union at St. Mary’s, 7 p.m.
Tracy at Sierra, 7 p.m.
Ripon at Bret Harte, 7:30 p.m.
The countdown to zero is over.
High school football kicks off tonight in the Sac-Joaquin Section, and three zero-week games involve Manteca-area squads that look to take advantage of the early start.
Sierra will be the only show in town as it entertains former Valley Oak League rival Tracy High. East Union heads to Stockton to square off with powerhouse St. Mary’s, and Ripon takes on Bret Harte in Angels Camp.
The Sierra-Tracy game could be a big tone setter for the winning team as both squads go into the season with high expectations. The Timberwolves had qualified three straight seasons until 2011, while Tracy missed the cut the previous two years under head coach Matt Shrout, who enters his third season. The Bulldogs went 11-1 in 2009 when they made their last playoff appearance and appear primed to make another run.
Both teams return third-year varsity running backs who are cornerstone pieces in their respective offenses. Workhorse Anthony Cota aims to bounce back after a forearm injury kept him out of five games last season. The spread offense looks promising with junior gunslinger Jake Pruitt and the elusive Guillermo Nunez competing for snaps behind center.
Tracy comes with 6-foot, 212-pound fullback Bruce Russel, the team’s second-leading rusher a year ago who averaged 6.3 yards per carry. Luke Hannah (6-2, 211) returns to orchestrate the Wing-T offense that is anchored by big linemen.
The Division-I Bulldogs went 3-7 last year but were competitive in losses to playoff qualifying Elk Grove power Franklin (35-24 loss) and San Joaquin Athletic Association rival Lodi (49-41). They also suffered single-digit losses to fellow Tracy schools Kimball (29-22) and West (41-33) in nonleague play.
The Lancers of East Union, who are coming off a 1-9 campaign, will certainly have their hands full with St. Mary’s, which is ninth in MaxPreps’ SJS preseason rankings. East Union is ranked 130th. Second-year East Union coach Willie Herrera is a former standout player of St. Mary’s.
The Rams have dominated the Tri-City Athletic League since 2007. Second-year junior QB Caleb Parrish (6-3, 185) plays behind a physical offensive line and is surrounded by talented skill athletes such as WR Koadi Dike (6-3, 185), Brian Pasqual (5-8, 155) and Nai’im McGee (6-0, 180), who is also a top safety on the defensive end.
St. Mary’s boasts an ambitious nonleague schedule that includes Stockdale of Bakersfield, crosstown rival Lincoln and parochial juggernauts Central Catholic and De La Salle — the state’s fourth-ranked team and reigning California Interscholastic Federation Open Division champion.
Ripon will be tested on the road by Bret Harte’s powerful offensive line, which features tackles Rodney Riner (6-2, 230) and Jared Taylor (6-2, 270 and center Jesse Acedo (5-11, 250). Fullback Connor Zumbach will lead the physical round game.
Ripon counters with a battle-tested Wing-T led by returning QB Kyle Wengel, WR Cole Herrin and RB Anthony Baccioco.