Xavier Stewart (2) and Merced are the favorites to win the Central California Conference, according to writers at FrontRowPreps.com and The Merced Sun-Star. (Dan Harris)

Fill in the blank: "______" will win league. Writers pick all 8 conference champions.

James Burns

The "second season" begins Friday in the Central California Athletic Alliance, Central California Conference, Southern League, Trans-Valley League, Valley Oak League and Western Athletic Conference, and based on what we've learned through the first four weeks, the final month-and-a-half of the regular season should be exciting.

So who do you like?

FrontRowPreps.com asked the media in the southern half of the Sac-Joaquin Section to go out on a limb, picking the champion in the eight leagues that comprise our area. Those that participated were: Julian A. Lopez of The Modesto Bee; Eddie Ruiz of the Turlock Journal; Shawn Jansen of the Merced Sun-Star; Guy Dossi of the Calaveras Enterprise; Dennis Cruz of the Oakdale Leader; and my cohort in the Front Row, Joe Cortez.

Once you've read our selections, cast your vote by clicking on the link that accompanies each league.

Central California Athletic Alliance

Teams (in alphabetical order): Big Valley Christian, Brookside Christian, Delta Charter, Millennium, Sierra Ridge/ROP, Stone Ridge Christian, Turlock Christian.

Big Valley Christian has two of the top players in the Central California Athletic Alliance in quarterback Gunnar Selover (left) and running back Javyn Drobnick. (James Burns)

Burns: Big Valley Christian. Stone Ridge Christian has won the last three league titles, including two outright, but this is the season Big Valley Christian breaks through. The Lions possess the league’s best player in running back/linebacker Javyn Drobnick, a second-year quarterback in Gunnar Selover and a dynamic kick returner in Izaiha Homa. What’s more, Big Valley Christian has the top defense in the CCAA. Injuries will be a season-long concern for coach Brian Berkefeld, who lost starting offensive lineman Anthony McDonald to a knee injury last week, but there’s reinforcements coming. Running back/linebacker Blade House is a transfer from Turlock Christian and will be cleared next week, and middle linebacker Caleb Van Donselaar (ankle) should return to the huddle this week.

To make your pick, click here.

Central California Athletic League

Teams (in alphabetical order): Downey, Enochs, Gregori, Modesto, Pitman, Turlock.

Burns: Downey. I took a long look at Pitman, which has won four straight to start the season, features an experienced and explosive offense led by Treyton Fair, and one of the league’s top defenses. There’s a lot to like about the Pride … except its schedule. Pitman finishes the regular season with three “road” games: at Modesto, at Downey and at Turlock for the Harvest Bowl. The Bulldogs seemed an obvious choice, but they’re inconsistencies through the first four weeks scared me off the pick. Downey still feels like an imbalanced team, but they’ve got a championship pedigree and the league's only absolute: the "Air Raid" attack. The Knights will score a ton of points this season, but they’ll need the defense to rise to the occasion, especially on the road at Turlock (Sept. 28), Gregori (Oct. 12) and Modesto (Oct. 26).

Cortez: Turlock. A few weeks ago, I was certain Turlock was going to be the champion in the CCAL. Now, I’m less convinced after watching what Downey and Pitman have done this preseason. Plus, Gregori seems to have righted the ship and Modesto really impressed me in a win over Patterson. But I’m sticking with the ‘Dogs. I think they’ve got more talent, top to bottom, than any team in the loop. And a tough preseason slate, facing Freedom, Tracy, Sheldon and Central, can only help.

Lopez: Downey. Before the season, I thought the CCAL was going to be wild and I still think it is going to be. Pitman has been the biggest surprise with a 4-0 start and Gregori struggled with an 0-2 start but are now 2-2. Despite their defensive struggles, I still like the Knights because their offense has so many weapons. Beau Green is only a freshman but plays like a seasoned veteran. Bryce Peterson, Anderson Grover, Jordan Wilson and Robert Rivera are just some of the weapons he has to work with.

To make your pick, click here.

Central California Conference

Teams (in alphabetical order): Atwater, Buhach Colony, Central Valley, El Capitan, Golden Valley, Merced, Patterson.

Burns: Merced. At the start of the season, I thought Buhach Colony was the prohibitive favorite in the CCC because of its experience and stable of athletes, including Trey Paster and Youlas Dickson. While the Thunder have won three of their first four games and still look the part of a title contender, I’ve warmed to Merced. Rob Scheidt’s bunch is 4-0 for the first time since 2007 with victories over four playoff teams: Del Campo, Gregori, Downey and Madera. There isn’t a defense in the CCC that will hold the Bears to fewer than 30 points. Merced is fast and athletic, big and strong along the offensive line, and equally as experienced.

Jansen: Merced. Coming into the season, Merced and Buhach Colony were the favorites in the CCC. I give Merced the edge because the offense is averaging more than 50 points per game.

To make your pick, click here.

Mother Lode League

Teams (in alphabetical order): Amador, Argonaut, Bret Harte, Calaveras, Sonora, Summerville.

Sonora is 0-4 and still the prohibitive favorite in the Mother Lode League, largely because no MLL team has beaten the Wildcats since they came into the league in 2014. (Glenn Morris)

Dossi: Undecided. For the first time in years, there is no outright favorite to win the Mother Lode League title. Every team has an argument as to why it could be at the top of the MLL mountain. But until any MLL team beats Sonora, the Wildcats will continue to be the team to beat. Yet if preseason games were any indication, Sonora and Calaveras would be the laughing stocks of the league. The two powerhouses have a combined 0-7 record. However, Oakdale, Ripon, Escalon, Hilmar and Modesto Christian, all teams who they have lost to, are a combined 19-1. Now, Amador is a perfect 4-0 and Argonaut is a solid 3-1. It would be easy to think the title will be on the line in the final week of the season when those two teams clash. Amador and Argonaut have picked up wins over Davis, Livingston, Liberty Ranch, Union Mine and Sierra Ridge, who have a combined record of 5-16. The only winning team that either team has faced was Hughson, who defeated Argonaut 21-3. Summerville and Bret Harte are good and may surprise some teams, they probably won’t be finishing the regular season as league champions. The Mother Lode League title will be decided on Oct. 19 when Calaveras hosts Sonora at Frank Meyer Field in San Andreas. The two teams have played too hard of a preseason schedule not to be in tip-top shape once league play begins on Sept. 28.

To make your pick, click here.

Southern League

Teams (in alphabetical order): Delhi, Denair, Gustine, Le Grand, Mariposa, Orestimba, Ripon Christian, Waterford.

Burns: Ripon Christian. Five of the eight teams enter league play with records above .500, and three are unbeaten: Denair, Ripon Christian and Waterford. Orestimba is the three-time defending champion, but their grip on the crown has been loosened by up-and-down performances against Bret Harte (win), Hughson (win) and Golden Sierra (loss). The line to ascend the throne is getting longer and pushier with each week, but I think the one team that scares the Warriors is Ripon Christian, a program laced with experience and building steam since the return of offensive coordinator Randy Fasani. The title could be decided on Sept. 28 when Ripon Christian hosts Orestimba. Or, this pick could blow up in my face Friday when Ripon Christian and Waterford launch into league play.

Cortez: Orestimba. Is Ripon Christian ready to unseat three-time reigning champion Orestimba and claim its first Southern League title since 2012? The Knights certainly have the look, but the Warriors know how to win. MaxPreps thinks so, rating RC higher than Orestimba. But I think the Southern League isn’t as top-heavy as it has been in past seasons. Denair, Waterford and Gustine are dangerous. I still like the Warriors, who have won 21 consecutive league games. By the way, the Orestimba JV teams are 19-2 during that same span. The program is absolutely rolling and I don’t see any signs that it’s slowing down.

Ruiz: Denair. How can you pick against Orestimba? ... But let me tell you, Denair has an offense that can run and score against anyone in league. I still have Denair winning the SL; worst-case scenario they take second to Orestimba.

To make your pick, click here.

Trans-Valley League

Teams (in alphabetical order): Escalon, Hilmar, Hughson, Livingston, Modesto Christian, Ripon, Riverbank.

Modesto Christian quarterback Hayden Sauser is 11-2 since taking over the starting duties in 2017.

Burns: Modesto Christian. I know I’m in the minority here, but I believe the Crusaders have the talent, experience and motivation to finish the season atop a crowded leaderboard in the TVL. Since being inserted into the starting lineup, quarterback Hayden Sauser is 11-2. He missed the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI final against Hilmar with an injury, feeding into this decision's deciding factor. The Crusaders are driven by that embarrassing loss to Hilmar — just as Hilmar was driven by its blowout loss to Modesto Christian just weeks earlier.  Sauser is part of the largest senior class coach Mike Parsons has had since returning to campus in 2014 and that speaks to the Crusaders' leadership and camaraderie. As long as the small-roster Crusaders can stay healthy, I believe they’ll emerge from the scrum.

Cortez: Hilmar. A mere 72 hours ago, I would’ve picked Hilmar without hesitation. But Hilmar seemingly had all it could handle against a winless Sonora team on Friday. Now, I’m thinking Ripon might be the pick … but it had all it could handle with Calaveras. Maybe it’s Escalon? Or how about Modesto Christian? This will be the best league race in the southern half of the section. Like Turlock and Central Catholic, I think Hilmar has the most talent and experience in the league. They return so many players from last year’s Sac-Joaquin Section championship team. That counts for a lot. The Yellowjackets are the pick.

Lopez: Hilmar. Four teams in this league are 4-0. I love Modesto Christian’s defense and Hilmar’s offense, but I’ll give the slight edge to Hilmar. The Yellowjackets have Isaac Sharp, who has 11 touchdowns in four games. Looking forward to seeing them for the first time in person this weekend against Ripon.

Ruiz: Hilmar. The TVL championship could very well be decided when Ripon and Hilmar face off (Friday). Modesto Christian is hungry after last year’s disappointing finish, and Escalon always comes out ready for a war. … But talent and speed-wise, I’m positive they (the Yellowjackets) are the best TVL team as far as returners.

To make your pick, click here.

Valley Oak League

Teams (in alphabetical order): Central Catholic, East Union, Kimball, Manteca, Oakdale, Sierra, Weston Ranch.

Burns: Central Catholic. It’s hard to pick against the Raiders, who boast a talent-rich roster and have proven themselves against the strongest non-conference schedule in the southern half of the Sac-Joaquin Section. Also, the VOL isn’t nearly as elite as it has been in years past and the schedule favors Central Catholic, which will have four weeks between its toughest games — Manteca in Friday’s opener and Oakdale in Week 10. In the end, the VOL title will be decided on the final night of the regular season. In order to be crowned a champion, Central Catholic will have to beat Oakdale in The Corral — the VOL’s great equalizer.

Cortez: Central Catholic. I think Central Catholic is the class of the league right now, with talent and experience. Manteca really impressed in a win over Tracy, and Oakdale will be Oakdale by the end of the year. But I don’t see anybody beating Central Catholic this season, other than De La Salle, and we all know how good the Spartans are. I think the Raiders run the table in the VOL this season and be a real player in the Division II playoffs.

Lopez: Central Catholic. We don’t know who the starting quarterback is going to be, but I still like the Raiders to win the league. The defense has been playing well and Kyle Jacklich and Minaya Olivo have done a great job running the ball in replace of injured Dawaiian McNeely. I think at the end of the year, we are going to be talking about how the De La Salle game shaped their season.

Central Catholic is the favorite in the Valley Oak League, but Zeke Saffar (25) and Oakdale may have a say in the title race when the Raiders come to town on Oct. 26. (Glen Morris)

Cruz: Oakdale. Entering the year, there was a lot of uncertainty. With over two dozen graduates, the only constant on the team is head coach Trent Merzon. Oakdale’s Wing-T is hard to stop as backs Max Moore, Zeke Saffar, Leo Ayala and AJ Martinez hit you from all directions. Quarterback Hayden Knittel, when given the opportunity, can break a game open as well. Their defense is tough and fast. Peyton Bradford, Cameron Snow and Caleb Kuppens had an excellent preseason. I have Oakdale beating Central Catholic on the final night.

To make your pick, click here.

Western Athletic Conference

Teams (in alphabetical order): Beyer, Davis, Ceres, Johansen, Lathrop, Los Banos, Mountain House, Pacheco.

Burns: Mountain House. The Mustangs attack with a three-headed monster: Vlad Sutherland, Elias Escobar and quarterback Jesse Jordan. Mountain House has won its first three games, including a 34-26 triumph over large-school neighbor Kimball. Like many in the WAC, the Mustangs were moved into the conference after years of struggle elsewhere. In three seasons in the TVL, Mountain House was 0-15, but that exposure to the top small-school programs should serve the Mustangs well.

To make your pick, click here.

Follow James Burns on Twitter @jburns1980, or email him at frontrowpreps@gmail.com.