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Prep football team leaders biting at the bit

POSTED September 10, 2012 11:21 a.m.

It was a close race to the league title last season for Pitman and Turlock High. The cross-town rivals finished second and third, respectively, in the Central California Conference, separated by one game, as they watched Buhach Colony High claim the championship. This year the Bulldogs and Pride are out for retribution, back with seasoned weapons as they both attempt to bring the CCC title home.

Pitman’s arsenal comes in the form of three 1,000 yard rushers, seniors Brent Nelle, Kody Brackett, and Andres Mendes. With a rotating cast of runners, which also includes newcomers Logan Wolfley and Jimmy Zheng, the Pride will have the luxury of hitting their opponents with fresh legs and different rushing styles. Constant in camp competition has resulted in an early readiness for the bunch as their desire for playing time has helped to propel each other in terms of progression.

 Nelle and Brackett are expected to carry the brunt of the offensive load this season with Mendez contributing as needed. Although Mendez was a major force for the Pride’s offense a season ago, his unfortunate post-season knee injury against West High of Tracy, of which he has recovered from, has forced the Pitman coaching staff to limit his offensive role as he is also an important defensive contributor.

Keeping this, Pitman’s offensive tendencies, and the size of the offensive line in mind, Nelle and Brackett can easily repeat with individual 1,000 yard performances. In fact, Head Coach Brandon Harris is counting on it.

Turlock’s response to the Pride’s rushing threat involves a counter strike of youth and experience in junior quarterback Sean Downs. Downs, whose 2011 season was ended abruptly with a collar bone break, rushed and passed for over 500 yards a piece during his short time on the field last year which has created high expectations for the 2012 season. The return of third year Varsity starters DaShawn Holcombe and Brandon Esquievel  and the introduction of the catch-happy sophomore Jacob Mabie will make Down’s job much easier as the Bulldogs try to outperform the only two teams that bested them last year, Pitman and Buhach.

With Down’s Turlock wields a well balanced offensive attack. Opponents will be forced to defend his backfield, his arm, and his legs as he is known to scramble out of the pocket and extend plays. Although the Bulldog defense will be instrumental in Turlock’s success, tasked with the responsibility of containing Pitman and Buhach who averaged over 300 rushing yards a game last year, it’s up to Downs and the offense to consistently produce as to avoid last minute losses and heartbreaking defeats.

But the CCC isn’t the only league providing stiff competition this year, the Southern Athletic League’s schedule is also full of hungry teams vying for a championship, specifically Denair, Delhi, and Turlock Christian High. In terms of approach, TC and Delhi represent polar extremes while Denair sits somewhere in the middle

TC’s method of operation is centered around 6’6 quarterback Chase Gonzalez and a pass driven offense introduced by new Head Coach Shane Smith. The Eagles plan on scoring often with an aerial attack targeted at six different receivers, some experienced and some new to the game. TC’s season depends on Gonzalez’ ability to perform under pressure and live up to the expectations set by Coach Smith who has spent the bulk of the off season working on the quarterback’s mechanics and reading skills.  It’s not just this season at stake, however, after winning only two games in the past three years the Eagles must turn things around now if they are to create a new future and attitude for the program.

Delhi, on the other hand, intends to do its winning on the ground. The Hawks finished last season as the rushing leaders of the SAL despite the absence of standout Joseph Cantu. Luckily, Cantu is back for his third year of Varsity competition healthy as ever. With his star runner in place and a strong supporting cast in Ryan Saavedra and Corey Figuerroa Coach Rod McCombs expects his team to once again lead the league in rushing with Cantu and Figuerroa potentially exceeding 1,000 yards. If Delhi’s backfield can deliver it’s wouldn’t be unrealistic to see the Hawks nab a playoff berth, a goal the team has been chasing for a long time.

As for Denair, the Coyotes have implemented a new pistol offense to shake the SAL up but they will need their defense to fend opponents off while quarterback Trey Howze and co. find their rhythm. With limited Varsity experience to lean on it will be up to returning starters Cody Shannon and Xavier Valle to lead the Denair defense from the middle linebacker position.

Shannon, who started for the Coyotes last year as a sophomore, may also have to fill other roles, both on the offense and defense. With only 18 players at the Varsity level Head Coach Rich Goodwin will need his most talented players to contribute anywhere and everywhere they can. Shannon isn’t a stranger to the idea of versatility, last season alone he lined up at nearly every position on defense while simultaneously standing on the offensive line; generating much needed experience and football IQ.

The competition between each other notwithstanding, Denair, Delhi, and TC’s biggest tests will come at the hands of Le Grand, Ripon Christian, and Mariposa High; the big three standing in the way of a SAL title and the post-season.

Hilmar High is familiar with both league titles and post-season aspirations. Last year the Yellowjackets suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of rival Escalon High in the final Trans-Valley League game of the season, missing their chance to claim the TVL title. Hilmar responded with a memorable playoff run which was capped by a Sac-Joaquin Section IV Championship win over the very same Escalon team.

Nearly all the pieces from last season’s team are gone but Head Coach Frank Marques has found the players to step in and keep his machine running. One of the few returners, Corey Bayer, has proven to be an important component of that machine, splitting time between the offensive and defensive line in what will be the foundation of Hilmar’s 2012 season.

With depth at all skill positions, Hilmar’s main priority is to keep the line healthy and productive. Bayer presence on the offensive line provides much needed experience for the slash and dash style of running and cherry picking passing that has come to define Hilmar. If the line can hold strong throughout the season Hilmar’s chances at a TVL title are as good as ever and another playoff run isn’t out of the question either.

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