Mater Dei’s potential offensive firepower is too much and gives the Monarchs a tiny edge in a close call over league rival and defending CIF Open Division champ St. John Bosco for the preseason No. 1 slot. Our first inclination two weeks ago also was to have Centennial of Corona third, De La Salle fourth and Mission Viejo fifth. We didn’t change on that based on additional searching and comparisons of other rankings already out, but did move some teams around starting at the No. 8 position.
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(All teams listed with last year’s win-loss record)
(Thanks to Stockton office assistant editor Paul Muyskens for contributions)
(This is the start of the 38th consecutive season in which Cal-Hi Sports has provided state rankings for California high school football teams)
1. MATER DEI (SANTA ANA) 13-1
Head Coach: Bruce Rollinson
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at Bishop Amat (La Puente).
Who’s No. 1 in the state to start the season isn’t as obvious as many times in the past when De La Salle of Concord was either a multi-year defending CIF champion or when the Spartans were in the midst of their national record 151-game win streak.
The Monarchs were just about as highly regarded at the start of last year as they are this year, but didn’t deserve to be in front of Trinity League rival St. John Bosco because they hadn’t beaten the Braves in six straight meetings. They did get a win over Bosco last year, climbed to No. 1 in the state but lost to the Braves in a matchup for the CIF Southern Section Division I title.
With Bosco as the defending CIF state champ, either one could easily be No. 1 with the other No. 2. The two teams played twice last year and many think the same scenario will play out again.
Mater Dei’s offensive numbers, however, just become too hard to deny. Rollinson has 10 returning starters on that side of the ball and just about all of them will be playing at major colleges.
Returning phenom J.T. Daniels didn’t play at a recent passing tournament, fueling rumors about an injury, but until something is announced by the school we’re going with the assumption he’ll be okay. Daniels, the State Sophomore Athlete & Player of the Year, passed for 4,849 yards and 67 TDs last season. Senior Amon-Ra St. Brown, considered the state’s top overall college prospect for the Class of 2018, also is back after catching 60 passes for 1,229 yards and 21 TDs. Leading RB Shakobe Harper and Alabama-bound Tommy Brown (6-7, 320), who is one of the top offensive line prospects in the state, also are still in the fold.
Mater Dei’s biggest concerns at the end of last season about this season were that most of the defense is graduating, especially in the secondary. That defense was shored up by the arrival of transfer LBs Solomon Tuliaupupu (6-3, 220) from Claremont and Mase Funa (6-1, 220) from Santa Margarita. Tuliaupupu was all-state underclass who had 126 tackles. Funa is regarded as one of the state’s top juniors at his position. And with so much on offense, we’d expect that the Monarchs also will utilize the athletic abilities of junior Bru McCoy (6-3, 215) more on defense. He had six sacks playing defense as a sophomore.
2. ST. JOHN BOSCO (BELLFLOWER) 13-2
Head Coach: Jason Negro
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.).
Since UCLA’s Josh Rosen started as a sophomore for the Braves six years ago, they’ve gone on a run of fielding great teams that compares with any six-year stretch in state history. And that includes any six years by De La Salle. Not all of these teams ended unbeaten, but have had to play very difficult schedules and in the era of the CIF Open Division state championship.
Negro and his staff have just a bit more retooling to do than Mater Dei since among those gone is most of the offensive line (including State POY Wyatt Davis), most of the receiving corps, the top three tacklers on defense and leading rusher Terrance Beasley. Still, the Braves have many D1 college prospects ready to step up and assume starring roles. No backsliding whatsoever seems imminent.
The offense will again be led by QB Re-al Mitchell, who passed for 2,932 yards and 30 TDs last season and rushed for another 1,058 with 15 scores. He’s committed to Iowa State. The Braves also have one of the state’s top running backs in Arizona State-bound Demetrious Flowers (20 TDs) and young receivers, like junior Josh Delgado, who have been waiting for their turn.
On defense, Bosco’s secondary without question can be called the best in the state and perhaps best in the nation. The crew includes big-time national recruits Jaiden Woodbey (Ohio State), Stephan Blaylock (UCLA) and jr. Chris Steele (also UCLA). The Mater Dei receivers vs. the Bosco DBs is a matchup for the ages.
The first game against St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida will be a test given the distance of the trip and quality of opponent. If there’s weaknesses up front on either of the ball, it will be evident against a team like the Raiders.
3. CENTENNIAL (CORONA) 11-2
Head Coach: Matt Logan
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at home vs. No. 11 Pittsburg.
The number of returning starters is low (eight) compared to previous juggernaut teams of head coach Matt Logan, but running the show on offense will be a QB (Tanner McKee) who may be the best in school history. McKee, who showed at the Elite 11 Quarterback finals and at Nike’s The Opening that he’s one of the best in the country, threw for 3,522 yards and 36 TDs last season. He also rushed for 539 yards and 15 scores.
Centennial is coming off a season in which it lost one game by one point at the Honor Bowl to IMG Academy of Florida (arguably not really a high school team) and then the other game by one point to St. John Bosco in the CIFSS D1 semifinals. It was a team that literally may have been two plays away from going 15-0 and winning a state title.
With that kind of motivation, it also will make it easier for Logan in that he will have four linemen back along the offensive line, led by all-state candidate Solo Vaipulu (6-2, 285). While some receivers will need to emerge, another strength for the Huskies is their linebacking corps. All-state candidate Cameron Pitcher (6-0, 215) along with junior Trey Laulemaga (6-0, 220) and Nico Ross (6-0, 190) cover sideline-to-sideline very effectively.
4. DE LA SALLE (CONCORD) 11-2
Head Coach: Justin Alumbaugh
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at home vs. Amador Valley (Pleasanton).
With 17 returning starters, the Spartans are hoping they’re much closer to the level of the big three in Southern California than they were last season. Even with some trick plays (one that was a disaster and one that worked), De La Salle was hard-pressed to stay close to St. John Bosco in that 56-33 loss that decided the CIF Open Division title.
A similar team with experience two years ago, however, did get it done in the state final and knocked off a Corona Centennial squad 28-21 that had outscored Bosco two weeks earlier in the CIFSS title game.
The key for this year’s team may be to see if a quarterback can emerge who can do some of the things that 2015 standout Anthony Sweeney did. If it’s a team that can’t or won’t pass, getting to the Mater Dei-Bosco-Centennial level will be very difficult.
USC-bound DL Tuli Letuligasenoa (6-2, 320) is the squad’s top returnee on defense along with junior LB Henry To’oto’o (6-1, 220). To’oto’o was an all-state sophomore last season. Another all-state soph from last year, Isaiah Foksey (6-4, 225), shines as a defensive end and tight end.
The offense features the return of RB Kairee Robinson (5-8, 190). He broke loose for 2,012 yards and 25 TD as a junior. While other backs who gained significant yards are gone, it is known that the Spartans have several young running backs with D1 potential eager to emerge, including soph. Shamar Garrett and junior George King.
5. MISSION VIEJO 11-1
Head Coach: Bob Johnson
First Game: Sat., Aug. 19 at Baldwin (Hawaii).
It’ll be an early start for the Diablos in Hawaii, a trip they’ve made before, but it shouldn’t be a problem getting an early win.
Deciding which team to put fifth in the preseason behind the big three of the south and the 26-year king of the north has been a big question all summer, but Mission Viejo just has the right mixture of program strength and returning players. For various reasons, others we put fifth just seemed too high.
Although Colin Schooler is gone, a rugged but fast RB/LB and one of the best in school history, the Diablos still have an elite group of players. Two who were sophomore standouts on their team two years ago that went 16-0 and won the CIF Division I-AA state title are WR/DB Olaijah Griffin (6-2, 185) and WR Austin Osborne (6-3, 190). They combined for 27 TD catches last season. Griffin also is going to UCLA while Osborne has committed to Washington. Junior Jamari Farrell, who is getting D1 offers, should be the No. 1 running back while junior QB Joey Yellen, a transfer from St. John Bosco, should maintain the school’s long line of quality starters at that position.
Mission Viejo also has all-state candidates elsewhere with Arizona State-bound OL Jarrett Patterson (6-5, 275), Arizona State-bound LB Christian Lavalle (6-1, 226) and junior DB Akil Arnold (4 ints as a sophomore).
6. NARBONNE (HARBOR CITY) 14-1
Head Coach: Manuel Douglas
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at home vs. No. 9 Serra (Gardena).
As long as the CIFSS Division I frontrunners are so strong and maintain that grip of the CIF Open Division state title game berth from the south, the Gauchos seem like they’re going to be constantly in the mix to win a Division I state title. They fell to eventual champ Cathedral Catholic last year, but won the D1-A crown the year before that.
Narbonne should be that good again and we’ll find out how good in the first game against Serra. The Gauchos won that matchup 34-12 last season and return L.A. City Section Player of the Year Jalen Chatman (and our State Junior Player of the Year) at QB. Chatman, committed to Rutgers, had 3,926 yards passing and 52 TDs last season and added 622 rushing with six scores. He will have new teammates handing the ball to and throwing to, but incoming Redondo transfer Jermar Jefferson (6-1, 205) is an elite RB. Another plus is the return of OL Jonah Tauanu’u (6-5, 290), a junior who is one of the top OLs in his class in the state.
Narbonne’s defensive QB also is back and LB Raymond Scott (6-3, 225) already has all-state credentials. He had 100 tackles last season and has committed to USC. LB Julian Lewis (5-10, 225 and with 84 tackles) along with junior DB Ja’Maree Boone and senior DB Logan Taylor are other defensive returnees to watch.
7. CHAMINADE (WEST HILLS) 8-4
Head Coach: Ed Croson
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at home vs. Oaks Christian (Westlake Village).
At the end of last season, with all of the returning players the Eagles were supposed to have, we thought they were going to be the team in that fifth position to start this season. Instead, after losing several transfers, including national recruit RB T.J. Pledger to IMG Academy, they had to drop back down. In the end, they didn’t drop that far because the team coming up with transfers is a Long Beach Poly squad that Chaminade drilled 50-14 in last year’s CIFSS D1 playoffs. Until Poly shows what it can do in a real game, we just weren’t going to completely ignore the score when the two squads last played.
Despite the transfer losses, Chaminade still has a formidable squad. Senior RB Andrew Van Buren (6-1, 215) had more than 500 yards rushing and 11 TDs backing up Pledger and is getting D1 offers himself. QB Ryan Stevens emerged last season and ended with 1,269 yards passing and nine TDs. Then there’s WR Michael Wilson, one of the best in SoCal with 70 catches for 1,278 yards and 12 TDs as a junior.
The Eagles’ defense will feature LB Blake Antzoulatos (6-2, 212), a junior who is getting multiple D1 offers.
8. LONG BEACH POLY (LONG BEACH) 7-4
Head Coach: Antonio Pierce
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at home vs. Los Alamitos.
At least one preseason national ranking has the Jackrabbits in the top 10 and from a talent standpoint we don’t disagree. We’re just not in the habit of handing out a high ranking until a team earns it on the field. Poly just hasn’t had a big win in several years and lost in the CIFSS D1 playoffs 50-14 last season to Chaminade.
Most of the excitement surrounds the incoming transfer of QB Matt Corral (6-2, 205), who just committed to Florida, and WR Jalen Hall (6-4, 190), who has committed to USC. Corral passed for more than 6,000 yards and 58 TDs at Oaks Christian of Westlake Village. Hall was a three-year standout at Hawkins of Los Angeles. Another Hawkins player, DB Aashari Crosswell (6-1, 185), also is now at Poly and also is drawing major D1 recruiting interest.
Even without those three, the Jackrabbits were going to be much improved from 2016. Key returnees include RB Mike Mauai (670 yards rushing, 11 TDs), LB Wiley Purry (91 tackles) and DL Aaron Frost (6-4, 290).
9. SERRA (GARDENA) 7-4
Head Coach: Scott Altenberg
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at No. 6 Narbonne (Harbor City).
As usual, the Cavaliers are playing a rugged schedule, one that helps them get a high preseason ranking because just how good they may be will be revealed early. In their case, they’ll be looking for a much better showing this time in the first game against Narbonne than last year (a 34-12 loss).
In the last two years, Serra’s quarterback has been one to do it all as a passer and rusher. Jalani Eason was in that role last year. Junior Blaze McKibbin (6-4, 190) may not be quite the same, but with the receivers he’ll have it may not matter. Serra’s top returning wideout is Kobe Smith, who caught 51 passes for 859 yards last year and has numerous D1 offers. Baseball standout John Jackson also returns.
The Cavs also have two returning all-state candidates who play at that level on both sides of the ball. Bryan Addison (6-4, 195) has D1 offers as a receiver but also had 53 tackles last season. Max Williams (5-11, 175) is one of the top junior DBs in the nation but can make catches on offense as well.
Serra’s defense is also going to be rocking at linebacker. Merlin Robertson (6-3, 230) had 88 tackles as a junior and will be a solid D1 recruit. Sophomore John Houston (6-3, 195) already looks like a prime-time talent and had 80 tackles as a freshman.
Head Coach: Nick Baiz
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at home Chaparral (Temecula).
After their win over Mission Viejo in a matchup of 11-0 teams in the CIFSS D1 quarterfinals and then a respectable showing in their only to Mater Dei, the Cougars were clearly the closest team in the CIFSS to the SoCal big three last season. They lose a lot from that squad, but we’re not dropping them that far to start 2017.
Having a returning QB in Nick Acosta is a big bonus for RC. He had 2,288 yards passing and 27 TDs as a junior. The Cougars also still have one of the top RBs in junior Sean Dollars, who had 1,193 yards rushing and is a major D1 recruit.
On defense, Rancho’s best include LB Dylan Beridon (50 tackles), LB Lavaka Latu (five sacks) and LB Roy Wiley (6-0, 210). Most of last season’s fabulous secondary has graduated, including all-state multi-purpose Jaylon Redd and all-state Thomas Graham. One of those DBs back, though, is junior Jeremiah Criddell, who is among the top junior DBs in California.
11. PITTSBURG 9-2
Head Coach: Vic Galli
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at No. 3 Centennial (Corona).
The Pirates aren’t playing De La Salle this year in the regular season, so they’ll get a taste of the big time instead in their first game when they go to the Inland Empire to take on Corona Centennial.
Pitt gets the No. 2 spot for NorCal in the preseason and just out of the top 10 for the state with a lineup including 12 returning starters and great speed at the skill positions, in the secondary and at linebacker. Galli does have one major hole to worry about, however, and that’s the offensive line where all five starters have graduated.
Watching many of the Pirates at the Nike NorCal Opening revealed that several of them are even more major talents than first thought. Junior DL Jacob Bandes (6-2, 275) was one of the best in his group. LBs Jack Lacy and Willie Harts ran all over the place making plays while WR/DB Ajae Boyd was hard-working and quick.
Four first team all-league players on defense alone will be returning. The other one not mentioned above is DE Michael Pryor, who had seven sacks as a junior.
On offense, Pitt needs a running back to come in for All-Bay Area Montaz Thompson, but junior QB Trey Turner is returning. He passed for 957 yards and ran for 200 more as a sophomore.
12. HELIX (LA MESA) 10-3
Head Coach: Robbie Owens
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at home vs. Herriman (West Herriman, Utah).
The Highlanders and Cathedral Catholic have traded off being the top team in the CIF San Diego Section the past two years. This year, with 13 returning starters plus the addition of the top transfer in the area, may put Helix back in the No. 1 position.
The big transfer news was WR/DB Isaac Taylor-Stuart coming in from St. Augustine. He was an all-state underclass pick last season and in the summer was the fastest player at Nike’s The Opening in Beaverton, Ore.
Adding Taylor-Stuart into the fold will help the most on defense since Helix’s most returning strength already was on offense. Look for QB Carson Baker (UC Davis commit) to have a huge year, especially with four the five offensive linemen also coming back. Baker passed for 2,776 yards and 23 TDs last season. WR Rashad Scott also returns after getting 46 catches for 774 yards and seven scores. Yet another returnee is soph. RB Elelyon Noa, the younger brother of graduated 2016 standout Zeke Noa. In just six games last year, Noa had 637 yards rushing.
13. MURRIETA VALLEY (MURRIETA) 11-3
Head Coach: George Wilson
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at home vs. Santiago (Corona).
It could easily have been Murrieta Valley in the top 10 instead of Rancho Cucamonga from the Inland Empire, but we went with the Cougars higher while putting the Nighthawks close behind.
While a new running back needs to come through in the absence of graduated standout Lika Palmer, Wilson has one of the most dynamic pass-catch combos in the nation with junior QB Hank Bachmeier and senior WR Marquis Spiker. Bachmeier, who also started as a freshman, whipped it up for 3,862 yards with 46 TDs last season. He added 679 yards rushing and eight other scores. Spiker latched on to 90 receptions measuring more than 1,700 yards and his 26 TD catches put him into the state record book.
Twelve starters in all are returning and there will need to be a few newcomers especially on defense who can come in and slow the opposition.
Also among those back are OL Anthony Pardue (6-3, 300), LB Trevor Whitehead (93 tackles), DB Brock Berry (88 tackles, two interceptions) and DB Kelley Coleman (5 interceptions).
14. CATHEDRAL CATHOLIC (SAN DIEGO) 15-0
Head Coach: Sean Doyle
First Game: Fri., Aug. 25 at No. 31 Del Oro (Loomis).
Once it was decided to put Helix higher and also that St. Mary’s of Stockton would be in the top 15, it naturally flowed to place the Dons right ahead of the St. Mary’s team they defeated in the CIF D1-AA state final.
Only six starters are back, but Cathedral Catholic has players coming up from a dominant 10-0 JV team. One of those we’ve been checking all summer to see if he’s staying at Cathedral Catholic is 6-foot-3, 220-pound hard-hitting LB Jake Lynch, the son of recently hired SF 49ers GM John Lynch. Just this week, he was still on the Dons’ roster and not moved to the Bay Area.
Getting someone to play well at the QB position in the wake of graduated Tate Haynes may be the biggest challenge. The good news is that junior RB Shawn Poma is back after he piled up 1,338 yards rushing and 19 TDs. Anyone who saw the state final also knows that Poma can take it the distance on screen passes, too.
Others to watch at CC include junior DL/LB Miles McCormick (4.5 sacks) and DE Justin Clement (6 sacks). We’re also intrigued to see the development of junior LB Devin Dye, a junior and the son of former World Series MVP Jermaine Dye (Chicago White Sox and from Wood High in Vacaville).
15. ST. MARY’S (STOCKTON) 14-2
Head Coach: Tony Franks
First Game: Sat., Aug. 26 at home vs. No. 33 Serra (San Mateo).
Getting their chance to avenge a season-ending loss two seasons ago, the Rams captured the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship last season with a 56-25 win over Folsom and made the CIF Division I-AA state final where they lost in heartbreaking fashion 38-35 against Cathedral Catholic of San Diego.
Losing quarterback Jake Dunniway, who passed for over 4,000 yards last season, the Rams could count on their running game even more this season with Dusty Frampton back for his senior year. Frampton, who was having a huge game against Cathedral Catholic until a fourth quarter injury, rushed for 2,345 yards and 42 touchdowns in a breakout junior campaign. Also back are two-way players Marcus Aponte and Aaron Jenkins III and linebacker Harrison Heath, who had a second best 99 total tackles last year. Up front, all-state Popo Aumavae is now at Oregon, but Max Barth (6-6, 250) is back and he could end up going to Oregon as well.
The toughest part of the season will be before league play gets underway as the Rams play non-league games against Serra of San Mateo, Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa, Central Catholic of Modesto and Cosumnes Oaks of Elk Grove just like they did last season but this year their final non-league game will change from them playing at St. John Bosco of Bellflower to a game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara against No. 1 Mater Dei of Santa Ana.
Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: