Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa raises the CIF Northern California regional trophy following a victory over Bullard in the fall. (Samantha Schmidt)

Add another beast: Central Catholic will play national power St. John Bosco

Ron Agostini

The Central Catholic High Raiders, CIF state finalists last fall, already had committed to a nasty non-league schedule for 2022.

That schedule now has become even tougher. Much tougher.

The Raiders, seeking a game after the cancellation by Windsor, have added national powerhouse St. John Bosco. They’ll travel to Bellflower on Sept. 23 to climax one of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s most rigorous non-league campaigns.

“It really tells you something about your program. It’s a compliment,” said Roger Canepa, who will enter his  15th season as Central Catholic's head coach. “I’m excited and happy, and so are the kids. They have the same mentality as me – play the best.”

The change, announced Monday and agreed upon by the two schools last week, wasn’t the only off-speed pitch thrown at the Raiders last week. The Sac-Joaquin Section’s Board of Managers upgraded the Raiders to Division I, a first for the decorated program, effective in the 2022 postseason.

Canepa and Central Catholic Athletic Director Billy Hylla, both noting the Raiders had not passed the three-straight-section-titles threshold for promotion, were disappointed by the decision.

“I have an issue with how it played out, with a system that moved us up without matching the criteria,” Hylla said. “But I’m good with it now., I know they can’t move us up again.”

Manteca, which has won three section titles in the last four years, was promoted to Division II.

Central Catholic’s non-league schedule was increased by one game due to Weston Ranch’s switch from the Valley Oak League to the San Joaquin Athletic Association. Here’s a quick look at what the Raiders will prepare for:

Aug. 19: At Merced to help dedicate the Bears’ new on-campus stadium. Merced reached the section D-IV finals in 2021.

Aug. 26: At St. Francis of Mountain View, a matchup scheduled for last year but scrapped due to poor air conditions. All the Lancers (11-1) did last year was beat De La Salle and Bellarmine.

Sept. 2: The home opener against traditional Holy Bowl opponent St. Mary’s of Stockton, which qualified for the D-I semifinals.

Sept. 10: At Serra of San Mateo to face a team (11-2) that advanced to the state D-I final.

Sept. 23: After a needed bye, the bus ride to St. John Bosco.

Canepa said Central Catholic and Windsor had a “handshake agreement” for its game. That agreement was negated, however, after Windsor coach Paul Cronin – who guided the Jaguars to an 11-2 record and a North Coast Section D-III title in his only season at Windsor after years of success at Cardinal Newman--accepted the head-coaching job at Ohio prep power Newark High.

“They (Windsor) didn’t think they were good enough to play us,” Canepa said.

Central Catholic posted the opening and, after about five minutes, got a call from St. John Bosco. Four days later, the schools signed their respective contracts. Bosco will cover some of Central Catholic’s travel expenses, a welcome gesture given the five-figure price tag for such a road trip.

Canepa and Bosco coach Jason Negro met when they coached together in the Under Armor All-Star Game in Florida in 2015. The Raiders also practiced on the Bosco campus – as do many traveling Northern California teams –-before their 34-25 loss to Mater Dei Catholic of Chula Vista in the CIF State 2-AA title game.

“We are really excited to bring our two Catholic communities together,” Negro said via text over the weekend. “I have so much respect for the Central Catholic football program and am humbled they are taking the game with us. It’s going to be a great experience for all involved.”

Negro's Bosco teams have been recognized two times (2013 and ’19) as a national champion by MaxPreps.com, a national runner-up in '16 and three times a state champion. In 2019, the Braves won the CIF Open title with a three-touchdown thrashing of Del La Salle. They were 10-2 in 2021.

Negro, a Bosco graduate, took over in 2010 and soon returned the school to the football elite. His teams have gone 123-26.

“Central Catholic obviously has a tremendous reputation and they have a situation similar to ours—finding non-league games is challenging,”Negro said.

The promotion to Division I, coupled with that top-tier schedule, places emphasis on Central Catholic’s dramatic football growth over the past decade.  Consider: The Raiders, already a strong program, played in the Western Athletic Conference and competed in the Section Division IV playoffs in 2012.

They’ve springboarded forward, however, since they became VOL affiliates in 2014. Non-league games over the years against De La Salle, Cathedral Catholic of San Diego, Marin Catholic and Bellarmine of San Jose became important harbingers.

Last year, Central Catholic went 13-2 and captured the VOL and Section D-II titles and its first North 2-AA title. The Raiders, who advanced last year to the state final for the first time since 2015, have won 20 section titles and four state plaques in six trips to the finals. Their enrollment of about 360 will leave them among the smallest schools in Division I, but that’s not how it looks on the football field.

Aiden “Pony” Taylor, CC’s rugged running back who totaled 2,128 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2021, typifies Central Catholic’s progress. He will soon enroll at Washington as a preferred walk-on.

“When you play good people, you’re not going to win every game, but it’s how you get better,” Canepa said. “I think we now have to be mentioned with the best programs. But now we gotta go out there and play ‘em.”