During their annual Black and Gold Practice game, the Hughson Huskies clash in front of a crowd excited for the coming season (Samantha Schmidt).

Huskies on fire: Can Hughson repeat as small-schools state champion?

James Burns

Every year, just before the fall gets under way, Shaun King and the Hughson High football team disappear into the foothills with their footballs, sleeping bags, tents, and other camping equipment.

The annual retreat is meant to be a time of growth.

Yet, during their recent trip to Clark’s Fork, King practiced the art of subtraction.

King's Sac-Joaquin Section Championship hat burns.

One night, with talk of the season running hot and wild, King stepped to the fire with an impassioned speech for his reigning CIF State small-school champions.

 His words: Last year is over. It no longer exists. “Let’s forget about it,” he said. Looking back, King admits his emotions may have gotten the best of him, because just as soon as those words left his mouth …

 His Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI champion’s hat – the one bestowed upon him by section officials following a 14-13 win over Summerville in the final – left his hand, turning to ash slowly in the fire near their feet.

It was a stunning move, to be sure, one King still hasn’t reconciled.

“Let’s go get another one,” he told his staff and team.

 Now they must.

 “Parents have told me that left quite the impression on the boys,” he said on the eve of opening night, a clash with larger-school Ceres on Aug. 18. “It was one of those fired-up moments.”

 Hughson has reason to believe they can repeat last fall’s memorable run to section and state glory. The Huskies were young last season, and despite their youth, Hughson won 13 of its 15 games, including the last six by four points or less.

The Huskies edged Muir in the CIF State Division 5-AA Bowl, a game played in a downpour on their home field. Hughson was one of two state champions produced by the Trans-Valley League, joining Escalon, its dance partner in their league opener on Sept. 29.

 “Right now, small school football rules the area in the 209 and in the section,” King said. “I’ve always thought the TVL, with how tight and close we all are, we’re hoping to have section champions in Division IV, V and VI. That’s our goal.”

 Hughson’s returning cast of stars make them an immediate contender. The Huskies are led by quarterback Robert McDaniel, now in his third season at the varsity level. McDaniel was elevated to the varsity level as a freshman. His time in King’s system has turned him into a leader, one who inspires with fire and competitive spirit.

Returning quarterback Robert McDaniel keeps an eye on his opponent during Hughson's annual Black adn Gold practice game (Samantha Schmidt).

McDaniel is surrounded by playmakers and people-movers. Most of his offensive line returns, including Ivan Flores, who missed all of last season with an injury. He started his sophomore season.

Larkin Meyer and David Delgado bolster the skill positions. Meyer was on pace for an MVP-type of season when injury slowed him. He still finished with 21 catches for 499 yards. Delgado is the top returning receiver with 40 catches for 509 yards. He and Meyer combined for 11 interceptions on the other side of the ball.

 Alex Villareal was the team’s second-leading rusher a season ago. He had 799 yards and 10 touchdowns, while David Burns ranked among the section’s leaders in tackles with 152. Tight end/defensive end Max Mankins (6-3, 220) and lineman Navi Arretche (6-4, 315) have begun to attract the attention of collegiate scouts.

 “You look at the roster with everyone coming back and it’s great to see,” King said. “We’re so much further ahead than we were last year, but we have to keep the practices exciting and keep them wanting to play for something. We have to keep them from being complacent.”

Head coach Shaun King doesn't take his eyes off his team during Hughson's annual Black and Gold practice game (Samantha Schmidt).

King has his concerns.

 Last season, Hughson wasn’t on many preseason radars. This season, however, there is an expectation and pressure that weighs on King and his staff, a group that now includes longtime area football coach Chris Wolfley and former Detroit Lions player Jeremy Mankins.

 “We need to get over the honeymoon phase and be humbled a bit,” King said. “I’m nervous about where we are. I think we’re circled on everybody’s calendar, and we can’t look past anybody. We are senior heavy, whereas last year we were young, but we have some nervousness. Expectations are pretty high right now.”

 No stranger to punching up in weight, King has lined up a string of larger-school opponents to ready his Huskies for the fires of the TVL, including Ceres, Central Valley, Pitman and Downey, a perennial Central California Athletic League and Division II contender. Hughson will take on Elite of Vallejo in its final tune-up before league play.

 “I want us to play loose and fast like last year when no one gave us a chance and counted us out,” King said. “We need to play like last year. We need to get back to that mentality.”

 Plus, coach needs a new hat.