Big Valley senior linebacker Blade House led the team in tackles per game, tackles for loss and sacks, despite appearing in only seven games.

Mane objective: Lions hunting program's first Sac-Joaquin Section banner

James Burns

Brian Berkefeld’s first two seasons at Big Valley Christian have changed expectations at one of the smallest schools in the Sac-Joaquin Section.

Since arriving from Southern California giant Grace Brethren, Berkefeld’s football teams have posted back-to-back nine-win seasons, punctuated by a Central California Athletic Association title last fall.

Powered throughout by 2,000-yard running back Javyn Drobnick and boosted late by the addition of transfer Blade House, the Lions flirted with their first Sac-Joaquin Section finals appearance in four seasons. Big Valley Christian reached the semifinal round of the Division VII playoffs, losing to Golden Sierra 24-14.

With Drobnick and House back in the fold, Berkefeld and the Lions have their sights set on lifting the program’s first section banner -- a cherished piece of blue felt that validates a school … a program … a coach.

“That’s a goal, for sure,” Berkefeld said. “It’s always a goal and an expectation to win at the highest level you can win at. Our ultimate goal is to win a state title, but we know we have a tough schedule and you never know who will drop into the Division VII playoffs.

“We’re focused on the process and how we do things. … For the people on the outside, it sends a message that the way do things around here is legitimate.”

Big Valley’s hopes will be pinned to a dynamic playmaker with a thirst to lead from the front. Drobnick has rushed for 3,819 yards in two varsity seasons, including a regional-best 2,211 yards last fall. He opened his junior season with a career-best performance, gouging Harker for a school-record 376 yards and three touchdowns in a 47-20 win.

Like contact on the field, Drobnick doesn’t shy from pressure.

He began last season with a goal of becoming the region’s all-time single-season rushing leader and he’ll resume that pursuit this season. Oakdale’s Will Semone set the mark in 2016 with 2,851 yards in less than 16 games.

Big Valley running back Javyn Drobnick (right) rushed for a regional-best 2,211 yards last season. Drobnick returns this fall, along with 16 other seniors.

House, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound linebacker, provides balance on the opposite side of the ball. House transferred from Turlock Christian before the start of the 2018 season and appeared in only seven games. He hit the ground running, though, leading the Lions in tackles per game (8.9), tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (4.5).

Drobnick and House are part of a 17-man senior class.

“For Javyn, it’s his third year on varsity level for us. He has an opportunity to solidify himself as one of the top players in this area, whether it’s small school or big school,” Berkefeld said. “... Javyn has done a great job stepping up as a leader. He’s been the voice on the field, directing people and he’s getting better at it. I think he has a chance to be impactful for our program, not because of talent but his leadership.”

The Lions’ title defense will be dramatically different.

Turlock Christian will not compete in football this fall because of low turnover and athletic director Nicole Rodrigues told The Modesto Bee that it may be a few years before the Eagles return to the field. Rite of Passage has also cancelled its football season.

The Lions wasted no time filling the void created by Turlock Christian. Berkefeld added Delta of Clarksburg (Sept. 27) to a non-conference lineup that includes a season-opening clash with Riverbank (Aug. 24), Harker of San Jose (Aug. 30), Le Grand (Sept. 6), Waterford (Sept. 13) and Woodland Christian (Sept. 20).

“The two teams staring us in the face are Le Grand and Waterford, two teams from the Southern League. Waterford was in the playoffs and beat us, and Le Grand is a big, physical team,” Berkefeld said. “They’re going to be teams gunning for us. Those two are the big ones that stick out, because they’re teams that play above us. The fact that we have so many teams that can drop into our division, those are the ones that will prepare us the best.”

Six of Big Valley Christian’s games are home games, including the final four contests in CCAA play: vs. Stone Ridge Christian (Oct. 4), Millennium (Oct. 11), Delta Charter (Oct. 18) and Brookside Christian (Oct. 25). The Lions, who will introduce a new student section this fall, will also have a bye week before the start of the postseason.

“We have a great environment for families to come and watch,” Berkefeld said, “especially when we’re having success.”