It's never too early to start talking about high school football in the southern half of the Sac-Joaquin Section. The season begins Aug. 17, and here's a quick look at the top-five large schools in the area, which stretches from Manteca to Turlock, Newman to Sonora. Projections are based on returning talent and pedigree, and subject to change as we inch closer and closer to the season's first kickoff.
So, without further ado:
1. Central Catholic (10-2): The Raiders open the 2018 season with the area’s toughest schedule — Clovis, De La Salle, St. Mary’s, Lincoln of Stockton and Manteca, in order — and possess two top prospects: Dawaiian McNeely and D’angelo Bellamy, both of whom have received major Division I interest. Adding to the intrigue: An escalating quarterback competition between transfer Dalton Durossette and returning starter Kyle Jackson, and the transfer of former all-Modesto Metro Conference lineman Eric Soares. Season opener: at Clovis West, Aug. 17.
2. Manteca (12-3): The Mark Varnum era begins at Manteca. The former offensive coordinator takes the reins from Eric Reis, who won four of the program's five Sac-Joaquin Section championships and led the Buffaloes to three CIF NorCal bowl appearances. Varnum has talent to work with. Jacob DeJesus, Jorge Cedano and Trabon Russell are game-changers, who should ease Ryan Ward’s transition to starting quarterback. Season opener: at Lathrop, Aug. 17.
3. Turlock (8-3): Quarterback Jonah Kosakiewicz and Cal-bound offensive lineman Everett Johnson lead the two-time Central California Conference champions move into the Central California Athletic League. The Bulldogs need Kosakiewicz (1,156 total yards) and top returning rusher Lucas Curtis (324 yards, 6.9 yards per carry) to take the next step. Kosakiewicz dazzled many at April's National Underclassmen Combine, where he was named the No. 2 quarterback. Season opener: at Freedom, Aug. 17.
4. Oakdale (12-2): The Mustangs have won 13 of the last 16 Valley Oak League championships, including two straight, and their success is predicated on replenishing the Wing-T. Oakdale has produced seven 1,000-yard rushers in the last three seasons including two 2,000-yard backs in Will Semoni (2,851 in 2016) and Cameron Cherry (2,154 in 2017). Who steps up this fall? Oakdale Leader reporter Dennis Cruz reports Oscar Ramos and Zeke Saffar could be next in line. Season opener: vs. Sonora, Aug. 17.
5. Gregori (11-1): The Jaguars made history last fall with a senior class that featured quarterback Bobby Avina (Arizona State), tight end Gabe Sanchez (Brown University) and cornerback Evan Camarena (Humboldt State). Now the torch has been passed to twins Marcello and Trey Longstreth, two explosive all-around talents. Season opener: vs. Buhach Colony.
On the bubble: Downey (8-3), Patterson (11-2), Pitman (5-5), Modesto (7-4), East Union (7-4), Merced (4-6).