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VOL opens with Sierra-Oakdale
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The Valley Oak League schedule makers didn’t waste any time putting the lions in the ring with one another last fall.

Defending champion Manteca opened its title defense at Central Catholic, where the perennial Sac-Joaquin Section heavyweights needed overtime to settle their clash.

That night, the California high school football scene was introduced to Justin Rice, an unheralded back-up running back often overshadowed by the Raiders’ other artillery.

The younger Rice was thrust into a starting role because of attrition and made the most of his opportunity, burning the Buffaloes for four touchdowns. He tallied the decisive two-point conversion in overtime to give the Raiders a thrilling 29-28 win.

And there the needle stayed.

Rice would go onto rush for more than 2,000 yards and lead Central Catholic to its third straight state title. More importantly, though, that game set the tone for the rest of the VOL calendar.

Four teams harbored hopes of not just a league title but section and NorCal championships.

Sierra, Oakdale and Manteca were highly touted in Cal-Hi Sports’ Division III rankings. Central Catholic, despite league losses to Sierra and Oakdale, was the odds-on favorite to return to Carson … which it did.

The Timberwolves clinched a share of their second VOL title in 20 years with impressive home wins over co-champ Oakdale and Central Catholic.

East Union announced itself as a program on the come with sophomore quarterback Jack Weaver. The Lancers won three games for the first time under head coach Willie Herrera and bared its teeth in a loss to Sierra.

Likewise, Lathrop had Manteca on the ropes in a 14-12 loss and saw the diminutive Diego Chavez become an exciting run-and-gun quarterback.

With so many highlights and benchmark moments, what could the VOL’s schedule makers possibly do for an encore?

Stick to the formula.

For the second time in two seasons, the opening week of VOL play will feature a clash of potential champions.

Sierra travels to Oakdale on Sept. 25 in a game that will feature two of the Central Valley’s top running backs: the Timberwolves’ Mark Paule Jr., the reigning All-Area player of the year; and Oakdale’s Darus Nelson.

Other intriguing matchups include:

 Manteca travels to Sierra on Oct. 9. The crosstown rivals met in the rain and mud at Guss Schmiedt Field last season. Hector Soto proved at home in the slop, rushing for 197 yards and two touchdowns as the Buffaloes spoiled Sierra’s perfect league season. The Timberwolves were 5-1 at home last season.

 The Battle of I-5 between Weston Ranch and Lathrop on Oct. 16 may not have the same cache as, say, Central Catholic at Manteca (also scheduled for that Friday), but the blooming rivalry has been explosive.

Weston Ranch has hoisted the I-5 trophy each of the last two seasons, and with versatile athlete Erron Duncan back in the fold, the Cougars possess one of the league’s top two-way players.

 The Timberwolves finish the meat of their schedule at Central Catholic on Oct. 23, setting up a two-game homestand against Lathrop and Weston Ranch to close the regular season.

The Buffaloes kick off Halloween weekend at Oakdale. The two teams met at Levi’s Stadium last fall and the loss sent the Buffaloes into a mid-season tailspin. At this juncture in the season, Manteca can ill-afford another crushing defeat. Their postseason and title hopes may be on the line.

 East Union’s turnaround season was tainted by a 70-21 loss to Manteca in their finale. You better believe that score will be circled on the whiteboard in the Lancers’ locker room when the two meet again on Nov. 6.