Local high school football games kick off on Friday night after months of anticipation, and what was already expected to be a unique season due to the pandemic will look even stranger than usual for Denair and Hilmar high schools. Thanks to league shakeups, both teams will face a few new opponents over the next five weeks.
The Hilmar Yellowjackets moved from the Trans Valley League into the Central California Conference, joining a league with fellow Merced County schools that have to follow the same COVID guidelines. While Hilmar’s fellow TVL rival Livingston High will be in the league as well, the schedule switch sees the small school set to face off against other football programs that are nearly three times its size: Merced, Atwater and Buhach Colony.
At Denair, the Coyotes will play several of their Southern Athletic League counterparts, but face the additions of Weston Ranch and Riverbank as part of their schedule.
Hilmar varsity head coach Frank Marques is no stranger to a challenge, known for agreeing to difficult preseason schedules against larger schools for the ‘Jackets year after year. He’s happy to see his team back on the field, he said, which not only gives seniors a chance at one final season, but will prepare juniors and sophomores on the team for a full season in the fall.
“This is really a dual-purpose season now. We get to work on our stuff for next year and get ready for the season, yet our seniors get a great chance to go out and have some football play before they leave,” Marques said.
Returning senior quarterback Seth Miguel is expected to impress yet again for the Yellowjackets, who ended their last season with a loss to Escalon in the Division-VI Sac-Joaquin Section Championship game. Miguel and teammate Cole Bailey, who plays a key role on both offense and defense, both plan on playing at Modesto Junior College next season, while fullback Trace Van Guilder committed to Friends University earlier this year.
As his star seniors look to show out during their last high school season, Marques is excited to see what Hilmar’s up and coming players have in store. Sophomore wide receiver Derek Taylor’s 6-foot-7 presence on the field has already earned him looks from notable Division-I schools, and Marques is expecting big things from sophomore running back Cannon Ireland as well.
“Our future is still bright; our sophomores have a lot of talent in that class. Six of them were on the JV team that went undefeated last year, so we’re going to be okay,” Marques said.
Playing against several CCC teams should give the younger players a jump start on their varsity careers, he added.
“I really miss not getting ready for Escalon, but now we’ve got four Escalons,” Marques said. “I take it as a compliment to our program that they think we belong there, being a school our size. It’s not bad playing one of them once a year, but when you’ve got to play four of the CCC teams it’s going to be a challenge. We’re excited.”
A whopping 15 seniors graduated following the Denair Coyotes’ 2019 season, which saw their bid for a second straight CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII title fall short following a loss to Mariposa.
While head coach Anthony Armas said the program was expecting a drop in numbers this season, the added hurdle of COVID resulted in all athletes in grades 9-12 playing on varsity, with not enough players to field a junior varsity team.
“We didn’t think it would be this bad, but we’ll adjust. We’ve done it before,” Armas said. “With COVID, it was different this year — you had kids who couldn't play because they had to get a job to help support their family and things like that.”
As a result, the Coyotes are young this season and sophomores make up the biggest chunk of roster space. There are eight seniors playing this year, including quarterback David Sutton and fullback Cody Martinez. Armas said he’s looking forward to watching the pair start this year, as both were second in the depth chart last season behind former three-year starters Elvis Silva and Dylan De Silva.
With such a young team, as has been the case in past years as well, player development is a cornerstone of the Coyotes’ game. Skipping this season would have been detrimental to that progress, Armas said, and instead, sophomore starters like Iesen Warda and Chris Hernandez on the offensive line will be able to continue honing their skills in preparation for the fall.
“Even though it’s a short season, we’re able to get kids out there and get them that experience they need,” Armas said. “We’re going to be competing against ourselves and getting better every day. We’re not worried about the outside stuff and are just going to focus on what we can control.”
Denair will begin their season at 7 p.m. this Friday at Orestimba High, and will be home the following week. The Yellowjackets will play Atwater High at 7 p.m. on Friday in Hilmar.