Downey football coach Jeremy Plaa chats with an assistant during a passing tournament over the summer. The Knights are No. 6 in the Front Row's expanded preseason large-school rankings. (John Westberg)

Large-school rankings: CCC needs a new champ, could it be Buhach's 'Fly boys'?

James Burns

In recent years, the Valley Oak League has been the most dominant of the large-school leagues, producing six CIF State Bowl champions and 11 Sac-Joaquin Section titles since 2010.

The VOL promises to be just as entertaining and ruthless, but the most intriguing races lay in Stanislaus and Merced counties, where the banners in the Central California Conference and Central California Athletic League appear up for grabs. 

Anyone can win, which is to say …

Anyone. Can. Win.

The CCAL is headlined by two top-five programs and reigning league champions: No. 3 Turlock, formerly of the CCC, and No. 5 Gregori, the last Modesto Metro Conference winner. However, No. 6 Downey and No. 9 Pitman plan to make serious waves.

In the CCC, Turlock’s departure leaves the throne unoccupied. Can No. 8 Merced reassert itself as the team to beat, or will No. 7 Buhach Colony build on its success in 2017? No. 10 Patterson enters the CCC and loves being overlooked. Few play the chip-on-the-shoulder card better than coach Rob Cozart.

Now, here’s a closer look at the Front Row’s expanded large-school rankings:

1. Central Catholic (10-2): The Raiders check all the boxes — depth, experience and talent — but the schedule is stacked against them. Will Central Catholic’s ambitious nonconference schedule leave it battle-tested or fatigued for the Valley Oak League season? Season opener: at Clovis West, Aug. 17.

2. Manteca (12-3): The Buffaloes’ drive is simple — they want to become the region’s first team since Central Catholic to three-peat as a Sac-Joaquin Section champion. Coach Mark Varnum bets confidently on a roster lined with returners on both sides of the ball. Season opener: at Lathrop, Aug. 17.

3. Turlock (8-3): The Bulldogs may have one of the nastiest run defenses in the region with linebacker Jake Dirkse and defensive end Garrett Fountain, a San Diego State commit, lurking in the gaps and lanes. Season opener: at Freedom, Aug. 17.

4. Oakdale (12-2): One season after it was blessed with 18 returning starters from a CIF State Bowl team, Oakdale retools its Wing-T with a cast of players who aren’t necessarily household names. Not yet, any way. The Mustangs’ Wing-T has a way of turning relative unknowns into instant stars. Season opener: vs. Sonora, Aug. 17.

5. Gregori (11-1): One year after sending three players to four-year universities, including a quarterback to Arizona State (Bobby Avina) and a tight end to the Ivy League (Gabe Sanchez to Brown), the Jaguars return with arguably their most explosive team. But who will be at the controls: senior Marcello Longstreth or transfer Baker Melendez? Season opener: at Buhach Colony, Aug. 17.

6. Downey (8-3): UC Davis-bound wide receiver Bryce Peterson is no longer under center, but the Knights’ potent offense won’t skip a beat with either freshman Beau Green, a highly-touted prospect, or junior Bryce Gouker at the helm. Whoever wins the job will have a multitude of weapons, beginning with Peterson and fellow wideout Anderson Grover. Season opener: vs. East Union, Aug. 17.

7. Buhach Colony (7-4): Fifth-year coach Kevin Navarra experienced his first winning season in 2017, finishing 7-4 and reaching the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. This fall, “The Fly Boys,” led by Division I prospect Trey Paster, Jon Buttrey, Youlas Dickson and Owen Thomas, are hungry for more. Season opener: vs. Gregori, Aug. 17.

8. Merced (4-6): The Bears underwhelmed a season ago and finished with a sub-.500 record for the first time since 2011. Expect the perennial Central California Conference title contender to bounce back, especially with third-year quarterback Dhameer Warren at the controls. Season opener: at Del Campo, Aug. 17.

9. Pitman (5-5): The Pride missed the postseason last fall, but move into a new conference with a veteran group led by running back Payton Bass and quarterback Treyton Fair. With a big body and “he gone” speed, Bass is a home-run threat any time he touches the ball. Season opener: vs. Napa, Aug. 17

10. Patterson (11-2): The Tigers are coming off a season of incredible highs, most notably a Western Athletic Conference championship and Division III section semifinal appearance. Patterson lost a lot of talent to graduation and will reload around a pair of all-league offensive linemen, Omar Ortega and Logan Foumai. Season opener: at Tokay, Aug. 17.