Seth Miguel (pictured) replaces Treven Crowley under center for the defending CIF State and Sac-Joaquin Section champion Hilmar Yellowjackets.

Football hasn't even started and there's already a dogfight in the TVL

James Burns

Small Schools

Editor’s note: Comprised of teams from the Central California Athletic Alliance, Mother Lode League, Southern League and Trans-Valley League. Sac-Joaquin Section computer ranking in parenthesis.

1. Escalon (23): The Cougars came within a whisker of advancing to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI final and changing the postseason narrative. They return an athletic roster, led by All-Region preseason selections Kaden Christiansen, Colton Panero, Luke Anderson, Ty Harris and Damien Tom. Friday: vs. Union Mine. 

2. Ripon (25): A significant change under center -- three-sport athlete Nico Ilardi for graduated star Ryan Daggett -- may also prove to be a significant upgrade for the two-time defending TVL champion. With Ilardi at the controls, the Indians will stretch the field with Dorian Dougherty and tight end Troy Brogan. The true beauty about Ripon’s roster: There are stars on each side of the ball. Friday: vs. Weston Ranch. 

3. Hilmar (9): The reigning Sac-Joaquin Section and CIF State champions seek their first TVL title since 2016, and they’ll hunt the league banner with one of the fastest teams in Frank Marques’ decorated coaching career. Pace-setters to follow on Friday evenings: Seth Miguel and Cole Bailey. Friday: vs. Delhi.

4. Ripon Christian (29): The Knights have transformed from a high school football neophyte to legitimate player in these rankings, a program that now looks the TVL’s brass dead in the eye. Ripon Christian’s defense is loaded with strong tacklers adept at taking the ball away, but how will the offense respond to senior gunslinger Nolan Lingley? At the end of Maple Avenue, there are no concerns. Friday: vs. Davis.

5. Amador (61): The Buffaloes are a chic pick to knock off five-time defending MLL champion Sonora. Amador graduated just 10 seniors from a 50-man roster that won eight games and qualified for the postseason. There’s also this: the Buffaloes’ junior varsity team went 10-0 in 2018. Friday: vs. Orland.

6. Calaveras (48): Calaveras ushers in a new era as longtime assistant Doug Clark takes over for former coach Jason Weatherby, but he’ll be surrounded by a cast of familiar names, including two-way all-conference standout Donovin Giangregorio. Calaveras has been Sonora’s chief threat since the Wildcats were realigned into the MLL. Is this the season San Andreas -- not Sonora -- becomes the toast of the foothills? Friday: Bye.

7. Sonora (46): The Wildcats are young and vulnerable, and their 29-game winning streak in Mother Lode League play may be in jeopardy. Last season, Sonora began the season 0-4, but righted the ship in time to lift another league banner. The team could experience similar struggles this fall with a schedule front-loaded with potential league champions (Oakdale, Ripon, Hilmar, Escalon). Friday: vs. Oakdale.

8. Argonaut (55): The Mustangs won eight games and advanced to the postseason in 2018, but will have to overcome heavy graduation losses to threaten in a seemingly wide-open MLL. Argonaut must replace its top offensive and defensive threats, including sack master Joshua Sober. Friday: at El Dorado.

9. Hughson (72): The Huskies possess a versatile talent in Steven Morris, who can (and may) play quarterback, wide receiver, defensive back and safety, and they’ve bolstered their coaching staff with five coaches with impressive large-school credentials, including quarterback guru Scott Vincent and rising lineman coach Patrick McGarry. Friday: at Stagg.

10. Denair (45): The defending CIF State champions look to quarterback Elvis Silva, running back Dylan De Silva and lineman Carlo Morales to deliver an encore performance for one of the toughest programs in the state, pound for pound and player for player. Friday: vs. Millennium.

Others to watch: Orestimba (69), Big Valley Christian (93).