Manasse Itete, a high profile transfer from Modesto Christian to Central Catholic, collides with another player during practice (Samantha Schmidt).

Prep football 2023: It starts Friday night, stocked with 10 story-lines

Ron Agostini

The 2023 high school football season has arrived. Just bring sun screen and leave the blankets at home until November.

Old-timers still cringe at the thought that nearly half the regular season will be gone before the first day of autumn (Sept. 23). That’s the price to be paid for today’s expanded playoff brackets. Weigh the consequences, one way or the other, the next time JV games are contested in nearly triple-digit heat.

Question: Is it really worth the sweat, dehydration and general discomfort for players, coaches and spectators? Ponder the answer as we welcome the season Friday night with 10 story-lines:

1. RIVALRY – Sonora and Oakdale, rivals for over a century, sweeten the schedule on opening night. The game, to be contested at Oakdale’s Corral, is stocked with intrigue. For the first time in 24 years, the Mustangs will race onto the field without head coach Trent Merzon, who stepped down after the 2022 campaign. His Oakdale teams averaged at least 10 wins a season, a body of work rewarded by the predictable trophy-case load of hardware. Winning at that pace won’t be easy, but former defensive coordinator Garrett Martin – like Merzon, an Oakdale graduate –- appears ready for the task.

One certainty is that Sonora will roll down Highway 108 with intent. The Wildcats have beaten Oakdale only once since 2005, but last year was a missed chance. Sonora blew a large lead, turned it over seven times and lost in overtime 27-21.  The Wildcats, Sac-Joaquin Section Division V finalists last year, once again should contend if they can replace next-level linemen Roger Alderman (Utah) and Tyler Sells (Modesto Junior College).

Oakdale's former defensive coordinator, Garrett Martin, takes the reins as the Mustangs' head coach (Samantha Schmidt).

2. WEST SIDE POWER -- The Patterson Tigers ran the table in the Central California Conference the last two seasons and have not dropped a conference game since 2019. They have built their brand under Rob Cozart, who enters his 17th season as head coach. What’s not to like about 20 victories over the last two years?

Cozart again will place his trust in sophomore quarterback Max Medina, who plays much bigger than his 5-foot-9 135-pound frame. Medina, whose best sport is baseball as a fleet center fielder, started every game last year and passed for over 1,900 yards and 25 touchdowns.  “We knew right away he was the best quarterback in our program,” Cozart said. “His improvisational skills are phenomenal.”

 The Tigers clearly are gaining momentum as they become someone else’s problem next year in the Valley Oak League. As for now, they prepare for Game 1 at home against Hilmar.

3. FLAG FOOTBALL – Put away the hackneyed term “power puff football” perhaps forever. The CIF approved the beginning of interscholastic girls flag football last February, and the response has been through the roof.

Section Assistant Commissioner Will DeBoard reported that 70 teams scattered through 11 leagues will compete this season. “Super-fast growth,” DeBoard said. “It’s faster than what we saw in boys volleyball and competitive cheer. It was instantaneous. Boom, heavy interest.”

Thirty teams, split into two divisions, will qualify for the playoffs. Large school districts in Modesto and Elk Grove are expected to jump on board next year.

With Nichelson at Florida State, Bryson Davis returns as running back for Manteca (Samantha Schmidt).

4. BUFFALOES POST-BLAKE – Opponents are breathing easier after the graduation of Manteca’s 48-minute force Blake Nichelson, one of the most gifted players the area has seen in many years. His production and impact illustrate why he’s taken his talent to Florida State:  77 touchdowns over two seasons and swift sideline-to-sideline coverage on defense.

That said, Manteca – an eight-time section champion including one in its Division II debut last year – merely reloads. Bryson Davis, a 205-pound senior, returns after his 1,202-yard 16-touchdown performance last year.

The Buffaloes, for all their top-tier success, still have one box to check. They haven’t won an outright VOL title since 2012, due primarily to their 0-8 record against Central Catholic since the Raiders rejoined the league. Coach Mark Varnum and his Buffaloes want to clear that hurdle, the sooner the better.

5. CHANGES -- Parents easily transfer their student-athletes from campus to campus these days, resulting in more than a few comings and goings. Manasse Itete, the 270-pound lineman who started for Modesto Christian’s basketball team during its march to the 2022 CIF State Open Division basketball title game, will play for Central Catholic when he’s eligible in mid-season.  A few other transfers wait in the wings for the Raiders.

 Ry Atkins, a basketball standout who also played football at Summerville, has switched to Modesto Christian for basketball. Tommy Chance transferred from Central Catholic to Oakdale a year ago and will be the Mustangs’ quarterback.

One of the most fascinating of the new addresses belongs to Scott Sacuskie, who has joined Jeremy Plaa’s staff at Downey (Sacuskie is a Downey graduate). Sacuskie, the football coach and athletic director at Johansen several years ago, worked recently as a strength and conditioning coach at Colorado, a position he held about 15 years ago under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford.

The coach was caught up in Deion Sanders’ purge of players and coaches at Colorado. Asked if he stood any chance to keep his job at Colorado, Sacuskie was succinct. “No, he said, 'You're dismissed,'" he said. His exit from Boulder becomes a plus, however, at Downey. Sacuskie will coach his two sons, who are both in the Knights’ football program.

New head coaches are everywhere in the area: Jeff Abrew of Sierra, Kurt Bryan at Modesto Christian, Adam Lema of Big Valley Christian, Matt Granado of Buhach Colony, Jordan Irsik of El Capitan, Trevor Mew of Grace Davis, Chase Pometta of Mariposa County, Paul Nocito of Gustine, Manny Mossa of Calaveras and Martin.

Mew will succeed Tim Garcia, who will remain the Grace Davis athletic director while he joins Roger Canepa's staff at Central Catholic.

Orestimba's Alex Millan searches for an opening during the eight-team West Side Scrimmage (Samantha Schmidt).

6. TAKING THE NEXT STEP – Local football fans are familiar with returning stars such as quarterback Alex Millan of defending Southern League champion Orestimba, Hughson quarterback Robert McDaniel, Escalon quarterback Donovan Rozevink, Davis of Manteca and others. Here are three under-the-radar players who might take the next step this season.

The first is Escalon senior Jamin Miller, who made clutch plays during Escalon’s post-season push in 2022. Yes, he’s the returning Trans-Valley League’s Linebacker of the Year, but -– now as a senior in his third varsity season – he’ll assume a leadership position. The next player to watch is Downey junior Carson Lamb, who Plaa thinks will be the next in a long line of Downey standouts at quarterback. His arm looked strong and accurate during the eight-school scrimmage at Chuck Hughes Stadium last week. The third is Patterson freshman wide receiver Jace Johnson, the third 6-3 target for Medina. Cozart thinks Johnson could be his next freshman to help the Tigers.

7. ABOUT THE TVL – State championships were claimed on the same day last year by Escalon and Hughson, repeating the accomplishment by Ripon and Escalon in 2019. That’s the TVL in a nutshell, where four schools have earned the state’s top honors in recent years.

 This year promises more of the same. Escalon, Hughson, Hilmar and Ripon once again will contend in arguably the area’s most competitive games every Friday night. “You can confidently tell your kids as a coach that if you don’t win league, you can still win the section,” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said.

  It’s also hard not to notice what’s ahead. The new TVL, after next year’s realignment, will add Sonora, Ripon Christian and Orestimba.
“I think it will be a long gauntlet,” Musseman said.

Central Catholic quarterback Tyler Paul Wentworth has committed to play baseball for Clemson (Samantha Schmidt).

8. DOING IT ALL – There was major news this week in the commitment of Central Catholic football-basketball-baseball star Tyler Paul Wentworth to Clemson for baseball. He did a virtual tour of the Southeastern Conference, among other schools, before he settled with the Tigers.

But before that, the 6-5 lefty will lead the Raiders onto the field at quarterback for one more season. His athleticism and work ethic make him one of the area’s top all-around athletes. His father is Kevin Wentworth, a former PGA Tour pro who starred for an NCAA-title team at Oklahoma State.

9. GAMES TO WATCH: Let’s select games of the week before they even kick off: Aug. 18, Sonora at Oakdale. Aug. 25, Central Catholic at St. Mary’s. Sept. 1, Merced at Downey. Sept. 9 (Saturday), Manteca at Rocklin. Sept.15, Escalon at Oakdale. Sept. 22, Orestimba at Ripon Christian. Sept. 29, Escalon at Hughson. Oct. 6, Pitman at Turlock. Oct. 13, Turlock at Downey. Oct. 20, Manteca at Central Catholic.

They can only hope to match up with these 2022 classics: Turlock 51, St. Mary’s 50, a post-season beauty that ranks as one of the most amazing upsets in many years; Central Catholic 56, Manteca 49, a relentless comeback by the Raiders despite 400 yards and seven touchdowns by Nichelson; and Escalon 35, Sonora 34 in the D-V final, decided in the final seconds by Rozevink’s jump-ball pass in the back of the end zone to Owen Nash.

10. QB CLUB -- The Modesto Quarterback Club, begun in 1930, continues a long tradition with its Monday meetings during the regular season. Coaches from all the Modesto City Schools, plus Central Catholic, Modesto Christian and Big Valley Christian – the largest weekly meeting of head coaches in the section –- will talk about their most recent game and upcoming game in a lunch meeting which is open to the public. The club, a non-profit, prioritizes the raising offmoney for the football programs and also to provide a forum for parents, fans and media.  The venue is Denny’s Restaurant on McHenry Avenue not far from Doctors Medical Center., and the first meeting is Monday at noon. Members of the Johansen Vikings will be the special guests.