Turlock defensive end Devin Bradley celebrates a stop by the Bulldogs' defense during a season-opening win over Freedom of Oakley on Aug. 23, 2019. The Bulldogs return home to face another Bulldog this Thursday -- Tracy High, its annual Dogbone rival. (Samantha Schmidt)

Bold or Just Bald?: Scheduling, history fuel Central Catholic's rise to No. 1

James Burns
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History favors the Central Catholic football team in tonight's clash of the region's top large-school programs.

And so do we. 

The Raiders (6-1, 3-0) are 6-0 all-time against the Buffaloes (7-0, 3-0), tops in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III and FrontRowPreps.com polls. Central Catholic is ranked No. 2 in the region and No. 3 in the section's Division II poll, published by MaxPreps.

Aiden Taylor and the Central Catholic look to complete a sweep of the Valley Oak League's brass tonight against visiting Manteca, the region's top-ranked program. (Samantha Schmidt)

It promises to be the biggest game of the regular season -- well, until Escalon and Ripon meet the following week -- and the differences between the two may be marginal. Central's edge, though, is in scheduling and experience.

While Manteca has challenged itself with regional heavyweights, like third-ranked Downey and No. 4 Turlock, Central Catholic has gone outside the area for its tests.

The Raiders have faced spread and run-heavy attacks and should not be surprised by anything Manteca does tonight. Central Catholic will have to neutralize the Buffaloes' skill players, most notably junior Blake Nichelson, a two-way dynamo who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 27 touchdowns.

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"We've been ready to play every week," said Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa, whose strength of schedule is measured at 23.5 by MaxPreps' metrics, the strongest in the region. "We had a tough preseason. I'm an old-school guy. I want to make sure we have one of the tougher preseason schedules every year, so when we get to league and to the playoffs we're ready to play. It's about playing people to get better and we've done a good job of that. We've put them in tough spots."

The Raiders haven't backed down from a fight. Central Catholic began the season with consecutive wins over Merced, St. Mary's, its Holy Bowl rival, and San Ramon Valley. The Raiders suffered their only loss to San Jose's Bellarmine College Prep, 28-21, but have rolled over their first three Valley Oak League opponents -- Weston Ranch, Oakdale and Kimball -- by a combined score of 138-30. 

Tonight marks different points in the chase for a VOL crown for both Manteca and Central Catholic. The Buffaloes are at the start of the gauntlet -- Central Catholic, Kimball and Oakdale -- while the Raiders look to go 3-0 against the VOL's brass. 

In a 55-16 thrashing of once-unbeaten Kimball, Central Catholic controlled the Jaguars' dynamic passing attack. Defensive backs Nolan Croasdale, Jaelen Nichols, Elijah Robinson and Roland Brown held Kimball quarterback Nicholas Coronado to a season-low 70.3 rating. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes.

"Our point of focus was to score every time we had the ball and to make sure they were tired. We wanted those guys at wide receiver to tackle our guys. That's how you beat them," Canepa said. "We did a good job of getting onside kicks and controlling the tempo of the game."

FRIDAY, OCT. 15

Central California Athletic League

Downey at Enochs (Johansen H.S.) 7 p.m. Burns: Downey Cortez: Downey

Pitman at Gregori, 7 p.m. Burns: Gregori Cortez: Gregori

Modesto at Turlock, 7 p.m. Burns: Turlock Cortez: Turlock

Central California Conference

Central Valley at Atwater, 7 p.m. Burns: Atwater Cortez: Atwater 

Buhach Colony at Merced (Golden Valley H.S.), 7 p.m. Burns: Merced Cortez: Merced

Golden Valley at Patterson, 7 p.m. Burns: Patterson Cortez: Patterson

Valley Oak League

Manteca at Central Catholic, 7 p.m. Burns: Central Catholic Cortez: Central Catholic

East Union at Weston Ranch, 7 p.m. Burns: East Union Cortez: East Union

Sierra at Kimball, 7 p.m. Burns: Kimball Cortez: Kimball

Western Athletic Conference

Los Banos at Ceres, 7 p.m. Burns: Los Banos Cortez: Ceres

Davis at Beyer (Downey H.S.), 7 p.m. Burns: Davis Cortez: Davis

Johansen at Lathrop, 7 p.m. Burns: Lathrop Cortez: Lathrop

Mountain House at Pacheco, 7 p.m. Burns: Pacheco Cortez: Pacheco

Trans-Valley League

Escalon at Riverbank, 7 p.m. Burns: Escalon Cortez: Escalon

Hughson at Hilmar, 7 p.m. Burns: Hilmar Cortez: Hilmar

Livingston at Modesto Christian, 7 p.m. Burns: Livingston Cortez: Livingston

Mother Lode League

Summerville at Argonaut, 7 p.m. Burns: Summerville Cortez: Argonaut

Amador at Calaveras, 7 p.m. Burns: Calaveras Cortez: Calaveras

Southern League

Delhi at Denair, 7:15 p.m. Burns: Delhi Cortez: Denair

Gustine at Le Grand, 7:15 p.m. Burns: Le Grand Cortez: Le Grand

Mariposa at Ripon Christian, 7:15 p.m. Burns: Ripon Christian Cortez: Ripon Christian

Orestimba at Waterford, 7:15 p.m. Burns: Waterford Cortez: Waterford

Central California Athletic Alliance

Millennium at Big Valley Christian, 7 p.m. Burns: Big Valley Christian Cortez: Big Valley Christian

SATURDAY, OCT. 16

Central California Athletic Alliance

Stone Ridge Christian at Delta Charter, 11 a.m. Burns: Stone Ridge Christian Cortez: Stone Ridge Christian