Roger Canepa has loaded the Central Catholic schedule with heavy-hitters, including Windsor, Serra and St. Francis. (Samantha Schmidt)

Central Catholic, a program that once took on mighty De La Salle, creates an even tougher preseason slate

Joe Cortez

An age-old debate exists among football folk: Is it better to create a soft preseason schedule that allows a team to pile up victories and confidence simultaneously … or to forge your team in the blast furnace of a tough preseason slate, regardless of the potential for bumps and bruises, not to mention losses, along the way?

That question probably never will be resolved, but it’s easy to see where Central Catholic head coach Roger Canepa stands on the matter.

Canepa, who will be entering his 15th season as the Raiders’ head coach in 2022, once again has assembled the region’s toughest preseason schedule, taking on a virtual who’s who in Northern California football.

“I’m a firm believer in it,” said Canepa, who has taken on the likes of De La Salle (Concord), Cathedral Catholic (San Diego), Clovis West (Fresno) and Marin Catholic (Kentfield) in recent years. “We did it last year and it worked out and we’ve done it in years past and it’s worked out. That’s how we won the section and that’s how we won NorCal … we were battle tested."

This past season, Central Catholic had a preseason schedule that included Merced, St. Mary’s (Stockton), San Ramon Valley (Danville) and Bellarmine (San Jose). The Raiders went on to capture the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship and the Division 2-AA NorCal title.

San Ramon Valley and Bellarmine have been dropped for 2022, replaced with mighty St. Francis (Mountain View) and powerful Serra (San Mateo) of the rugged West Catholic Athletic League.

Valley Oak League foe Weston Ranch is departing for the San Joaquin Athletic Association, meaning the VOL will be a six-team league, making a fifth preseason game necessary. The Raiders have added Windsor of the North Bay League to fill that spot.

Here’s a look at Central Catholic’s 2022 preseason schedule:

Aug. 19, 2022: at Merced –The Raiders will open the season by helping the Bears christen their new on-campus stadium. Central Catholic needed a late field goal to beat Merced 31-28 in the 2021 opener. The Bears would go on to reach the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV final, losing to eventual state 3-AA champion Vanden, 49-21.

Aug. 26, 2022: at St. Francis – Central Catholic will travel to Mountain View to take on perennial NorCal powerhouse St. Francis, which had impressive wins over mighty De La Salle, 31-21; eventual NorCal Open champ Serra, 44-21; and Bellarmine, 44-24. The Bells were the only team to beat Central Catholic in the regular season, winning 28-21 in San Jose.

Sept. 2, 2022: vs. St. Mary’s – The Raiders will play their first home game of 2022 when the Rams visit David Patton Field for the annual Holy Bowl. St. Mary’s, eliminated 51-48 by Rocklin in the Division I semifinals, captured a D-I title in 2016. That’s no small feat considering state powerhouse Folsom always stands in the way.

Sept. 10, 2022: at Serra – Central Catholic will travel to San Mateo to face the Padres in a Saturday afternoon tilt at Brady Family Stadium. That’s Brady as in Tom Brady … a 1995 graduate of Serra. The Padres’ 2021 résumé includes a pair of wins against aforementioned Bellarmine (41-7 in the regular season, 41-0 in the playoffs) and a 16-12 thriller over St. Francis when the WCAL foes met in the NorCal final. Serra would go on to lose to eventual national champ Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 44-7 in the state’s Open Division title game.

Sept. 23, 2022: vs. Windsor – Following a much-deserved bye on Sept. 16, the Raiders will host Windsor, a team that reached the 3-AA NorCal championship game, losing to Vanden 56-28 one week after Merced lost to the Vikings by the same margin.

Following their five-game gauntlet, the Raiders open Valley Oak League play in Tracy against Kimball on Sept.30, then host archrival Oakdale on Oct. 7. The Mustangs reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title game last year, the 12th time they’ve reached a final since 2003.

The following week, on Oct. 14, the Raiders will travel to Manteca for what figures to be the most highly anticipated game of 2022 – a showdown between the section’s reigning D-II and D-III champions. Central Catholic beat Manteca 56-33 in the regular season, the first of three straight VOL losses for the Buffaloes, who regrouped and went onto capture the D-III banner with a 35-28 win over Oakdale.

Kimball, a playoff team in 2021 that lost a 51-50 heartbreaker to Merced in the section semis, and East Union, who gave Central Catholic, Manteca and Kimball all they could handle, are no longer easy outs in the VOL mix. And Sierra, though 1-9 last season, won a state title in 2015 and captured a section title as recently as 2019.

If you’re keeping score, Central Catholic’s overall schedule for 2022 features six section finalists and two others that came within a combined four points of being section finalists.

A schedule like that puts a premium on health, and the departure of perennial doormat Weston Ranch makes the VOL a much harder league to navigate. In years past, each VOL team would receive one league bye, then get another unofficial bye when playing the Cougars. That won’t be the case any longer, making it harder to hide injuries. And the injuries could mount for Central Catholic with such an ambitious preseason slate.

Oh, and there's this: The Raiders graduate seniors Aiden Taylor, a 5-11, 210-pounder who rushed for 2,128 yards and 38 TDs in 2021, and 6-2, 225-pound battering ram Julian Lopez, who amassed 1,387 yards and 19 TDs despite missing four games. Without the duo, the 2022 preseason looks even more daunting.

“To be honest, I don’t get worried anymore,” said Canepa, who guided his Raiders to their fifth appearance in a state championship game since 2012. “Back in the old days, you had to get a certain amount of wins to qualify for the postseason. You’re actually rewarded for playing better teams now. Playing good teams puts in a good spot.”