As practices for the 2017 football season get underway in the state, we have a first draft of what the Cal-Hi Sports preseason state rankings may look like with teams that would be in our top 10 as of the beginning of August. We can say for sure the top four won’t change when the actual preseason State Top 50 comes out in two weeks, but there could be others that get shifted around as the consensus of other local rankings and local writers gets added into the mix.
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California prep football has entered an era of the Open Division format of the CIF state playoffs that as many know has created a sense of inevitability as to which two teams will be playing in it.
That sense of inevitability also has been enhanced by the CIF Southern Section going to a new system in which its playoff divisions are now all being organized by competitive equity factors and no longer by enrollment or geography. There’s also been the emergence in the last few seasons of what one may call super programs in Southern California. It’s no longer a wide open race for the CIF Southern Section Division I championship. Just like super program De La Salle of Concord has been operating at an elite national level in Northern California for 30-plus years, now we have St. John Bosco of Bellflower, Mater Dei of Santa Ana and Centennial of Corona in the south.
Let’s face it. Unless something bizarre occurs this year, De La Salle will win another CIF North Coast Section title and even if the Spartans lose in their national games coming up to St. John’s (Washington DC) or Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) they’ll still get the NorCal Open Division bowl berth because they haven’t lost to another NorCal team (not including Fresno) since 1991. The big three of the south also are playing national games early on, but regardless there isn’t another team outside of those three in SoCal who’s considered by anyone to be capable of upsetting any of them. There could be one or two that gets close, but until any one of those other teams proves it on the field that will be hard to believe.
The result is that these top four teams in effect and barring what would be a huge upset are in a class by themselves. But does that mean that the rest of the state’s teams, players and coaches are meaningless? Actually, the way it is evolving, the reverse is true. Since the rest of the state beyond those four are much closer to each other in competitive equity, the races to see which teams end up winning the CIF Division 1-AA, Division 1-A, Division 2-AA and Division 2-A titles and on down the line are much more intriguing and much more exciting. Sure, Bosco was way better than St. Mary’s of Stockton last season, but that D1-AA state final that went to overtime between the Rams and unbeaten San Diego Cathedral Catholic was much more fun to watch than the Braves marching up and down the field against De La Salle in the Open Division.
Based mainly on all of its returning firepower on offense, head coach Bruce Rollinson’s squad at Mater Dei would be the preseason No. 1 team in the state to begin the debate. Bosco would have to be right behind with Centennial third (only loss to the Braves by one point last season) and De La Salle fourth. That could change if a number of others we respect (like Eric Sondheimer of the L.A. Times) all have the Braves No. 1 in other preseason prognostications. Look for the release of our own preseason State Top 50 package in two weeks.
Who’s No. 5?
As with any ranking, it’s not possible to provide gaps between one team and another. In California prep football this season, there seems to be a big one between No. 4 (after De La Salle) and No. 5. We recently did a Twitter poll asking that question and it’s not that Mission Viejo won that is why at first glance we’d put the Diablos in that spot. They will again be using a new quarterback, but in the head coach Bob Johnson era that has never been an issue at Mission Viejo. There are great returnees in all of the skill positions, especially with WR/DB Olaijah Griffin (just committed to UCLA) and WR Austin Osborne (will be major D1 signer), plus in the line and on defense.
The others we’ve been looking at for that spot have included a group consisting of Narbonne (Harbor City), Chaminade (West Hills), Serra (Gardena), Rancho Cucamonga and Pittsburg.
Narbonne has one of the state’s top QBs in Jalen Chatman, one of the state’s top LBs in Raymond Scott plus one of the top junior linemen in Jonah Tauanu’u and a key transfer in RB Jermar Jefferson from nearby Redondo (Redondo Beach).
We can say that Chaminade would have been a solid No. 5 preseason team had not RB T.J. Pledger (one of the best in the nation) transferred to IMG Academy in Florida. If you look at all of the players closely on that roster, though, that’s still a very strong group. Plus, RB Andrew Van Buren is another with several offers. Losing a 4-Star RB and replacing him with perhaps a 3-Star RB is not enough to drop Chaminade that far.
For Serra, new QB Blaze McKibbin may not be like the previous QBs of the Cavs who ran for all those yards but he’ll be throwing to one of the most athletic, versatile groups of wideouts in the nation.
Many also might quickly dismiss Rancho Cucamonga for losing a lot of talent off of last year’s team that beat Mission Viejo in the CIFSS D1 quarterfinals before losing to Mater Dei in the semis. But the Cougars do have QB Chris Acosta returning, plus one of the top junior RBs in the state (Sean Dollars) and several others to watch at key positions.
Finally, we always look to have a second NorCal team among the top 10 in the preseason state rankings and that team at the start of practices is Pittsburg. Sure, the Pirates lost to league rival Freedom (Oakley) twice last year, but just about everybody is back for head coach Vic Galli. You know Galli and staff think they may have something special when they signed on to play Centennial to open the season.
What About Long Beach Poly?
With the addition of transfer QB Matt Corral and transfer WR Jalen Hall along with transfer DB Aashari Crosswell plus the return of some big-time talented players, there’s a chance that the Jackrabbits will be up there with the big three in SoCal. This is a program, however, that frankly just hasn’t been that strong in recent years and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2014. The aforementioned Chaminade beat them last year in the first round 50-14. Does adding all of the transfers completely erase that result? Not the way we do preseason rankings and it’s not as if Chaminade lost everyone to graduation, either. Before jumping up Poly too high in the rankings, we just want to see the team post some quality wins early in the season. It doesn’t look like we’ll start the Jackrabbits in the top 10, but it won’t be much lower than No. 12 or No. 13.
Others That Seem Bound
For Preseason Top 20
Bakersfield: While the Drillers got drilled in their CIF D1-A NorCal playoff game by Del Oro, that was a very young team with a lot of talent that should be the favorite to start in the CIF Central Section. QB Kamren Williams is a junior with several D1 offers while junior Tahj Wright is another game-breaking player at wide receiver.
Cathedral Catholic (San Diego): Helix of La Mesa definitely has more returning strength, but the defending CIF D1-AA state champs will have to be high as well. We were interested to see if LB Jake Lynch was coming back since his father John Lynch became GM of the San Francisco 49ers in the off-season, but Lynch is on the team’s current roster.
Helix (La Mesa): Returning QB Carson Baker and transfer Isaac Taylor-Stuart (from St. Augustine) plus others make the Highlanders the probable team to beat in the CIF San Diego Section. Defending CIF D1-AA state champ Cathedral Catholic definitely loses more, but will have to be close behind.
JSerra (San Juan Capistrano): Trying to pick a third team from the Trinity League after St. John Bosco and Mater Dei is always a tall order. Most of those on the list had losing records last season, including JSerra at 5-6. But the Lions have a top returning QB (Matt Robinson) along with some other top returnees and we like the vibe coming from new head coach Pat Harlow.
Oak Ridge (El Dorado Hills): Veteran scribe Joe Davidson of the Sacramento Bee mentioned to us during last week’s Pac-12 Media Days that he was leaning toward Oak Ridge and not usual power Folsom to start out on top in the Sacramento area. And while Folsom hasn’t a lost a league game in eons, the Trojans only lost by one point last season to the Bulldogs (17-16) and definitely have a more impressive group of returning players.
San Ramon Valley (Danville): This is the team that only lost to De La Salle by one point last season and returns just about everyone, including QB Clark Baker, UCLA-bound OL Blake McDonald, WR Rob Funkhauser and many more. While we expect DLS to be much better, the Wolves should be as well.
St. Mary’s (Stockton): The defending CIF Sac-Joaquin D1 champs and loser in OT to Cathedral Catholic in that epic D1-AA state final will miss a lot of top linemen in addition to QB Jake Dunniway. But RB Dusty Frampton (2,300 yards) and others will be back. There’s definitely no other SJS team that should start out higher in the preseason rankings and we have coaching changes going on at traditional powers Del Oro and Elk Grove.
Murrieta Valley (Murrieta): With QB Hank Bachmeier and WR Marquis Spiker and others back, the Nighthawks will have one of the top offensive units in the state. If their defense had been better last year, they might be in the top 10. But it’ll probably be in the middle of the next 10.
Notes: We just aren’t ready yet to pick teams in order from the CIF Central Coast Section. St. Francis (Mountain View), Serra (San Mateo) and Valley Christian (San Jose) all have some positives entering the season, but all three lose key players as well. The only certainty is after Valley Christian plays Manteca on Aug. 25 and Serra plays St. Mary’s (Stockton) on Aug. 26 we’ll know an awful lot more. We’re also still gathering more info for teams in the Ventura County region. Calabasas will have a lot back, but loses Tristan Gebbia and Darnay Holmes. Newbury Park returns Oklahoma-bound QB Cameron Rising after injury-marred junior season while Oaks Christian has had several transfers coming and going. Valencia (of Valencia) may be better than all of them. The Vikings (10-3 in 2016) are loaded with returnees and have an upcoming 10-0 group of sophomores.
While we have 10 teams now listed on the ticker on our home page and in order, changes could be made for Preseason State Top 50 coming in two weeks. Feel free to let us know of a team you think should be highly ranked by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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As usual, an expert analysis. Keep it coming.
WCAL has lots of D1 talent this year across the board. This is looking like what could be a strong year for the WACAL relatively speaking. St Francis and Valley Christian are loaded on defense with D1 prospects and Serra should be as good as last year.
Plan to see both VC and Serra first weekend. All three will be ranked and probably very close to each other. St. Francis also has QB coming back so leaning toward them to be highest at start.
Valley Christian QB will be question mark – both candidates are mobile and underclassman has high potential as passer. Stacked with RBs and other skill players with speed. I am thinking St Francis slightly at #1 in WCAL too with returning QB. Serra even though lost top skill player in WCAL at QB could be just as good and maybe better than last year with overall talent young last year. Bellarmine has a D1 RB and pretty good QB coming up and some size on defense. They could surprise. SI will be better than last year. It will be tough for a team to run the table in the WCAL and probably at least co-champs.
Look for Norco to have a big year with 17 returning starters…
I have Bosco, Centennial, and Mater Dei #1, 2, and 3. I agree that Mater Dei is probably the most talented, but there have been extremely loaded Monarch teams in the relatively recent past that have managed to lose the big ones.
De La Salle I have at #4, but with a big question mark in that they’ll need to have a much better passing game than in ’16.
I think Mission Viejo, Narbonne, and Helix come next but not necessarily in that order.
I’m sticking my neck out in that I think Folsom will be back and dominate the SJS again and have the Bulldogs at #8. However they play at Oak Ridge Nov. 3 and the home field advantage could easily spell a victory for the Trojans.
I have J. Serra at #9 and Chaminade at #10.
One NorCal team you mentioned, San Ramon Valley, I have at #28. A big question: should the Wolves play in the NCS D1 playoffs and win it, will the division’s champion be dead-ended again by NCS?
I’m anxious to see your Top 50 in several days.
We got a flavor of what might happen when a lower division NCS team plays against a D-I type team in the playoffs. Cardinal Newman was manhandled by Valley Christian. As such, I believe you will again see four D-I teams in their Open Division, which would leave out the actual D-I winner.
St. Francis renewed its series with De La Salle after giving up a few years ago. The Lancers have been sitting on the cusp for the last several years. I think San Mateo Serra has benefited from playing more intersectional games and the rest of the league has taken notice, scheduling a number of their own this season.
The biggest thing that impressed me with Rancho Cucamonga last year was their coaching staff. In the two games I saw with them, they never panicked when falling behind early and made good adjustments mid-game en-route to victories.