More State Football Players of the Year

State Sophomore of the Year Ryder Lyons of Folsom (left) zips pass downfield during CIF D1-A state title game vs St. Bonaventure of Ventura. At right, State Junior of the Year Marco Jones from San Ramon Valley of Danville wraps up a running back from Oakland McClymonds. Photos: Scott Kurtz / Cal-Hi Sports & Ben Enos / SportStars.

Check inside this post for the honorees who have been chosen among juniors, sophomores, freshmen, medium schools and small schools. Northern California standouts capture the junior & sophomore No. 1 positions while the CIF Central Section gains both the medium schools and small schools winners.

To see who has been named Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Football State Player of the Year, CLICK HERE.

To see who has been named Cal-Hi Sports Defensive State Player of the Year, CLICK HERE.

For a list of our all-time players of the year for juniors, sophomores, medium schools and small schools, CLICK HERE.

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Congratulations to the following additional Cal-Hi Sports State Players of the Year for the 2023 football season (joining overall honoree Elijah Brown from Mater Dei of Santa Ana):


Following a sophomore season in which he had 149 tackles in 15 games and was chosen to the all-state sophomore team, Jones got bigger, stronger and faster as a junior and became one of the best for his class in the nation. With some offensive contributions this year as well, he also has gained the leading spot among juniors in California.

It would be hard to claim that Marco was as dominant as a junior compared to Bay Area legends Najee Harris of Antioch or D.J. Williams of Concord De La Salle, but he is now the first state junior of the year from the Bay Area since Najee in 2015 and then it goes back before that to D.J. for 1998. We do think he is close to the level of those two, however, and would rank among the most impressive juniors from the region we’ve seen in many years.

Jones’ team this season didn’t play for a CIF state title like it did in 2022, but the Wolves were moved up to D1 for the CIF North Coast Section, which is the domain of De La Salle and Pittsburg. They lost twice to the Spartans, once in overtime and then 17-7 in the NCS Open championship in a game they led 7-3 entering the fourth quarter. Jones was like a one-man wrecking crew on defense in the title game as he finished with 22 tackles and an interception. San Ramon Valley (10-3) then lost to Pittsburg for the NCS D1 title, 37-21, and in that game Marco had 15 tackles and kept his team in the game with an interception return touchdown.

For the 13-game season, Jones ended with 166 tackles with 15 for loss. He also had 2.5 sacks, three interceptions, one fumble recovery and three fumbles caused. He played tight end and goal-line running back on offense and had 23 catches for 366 yards and seven touchdowns. He also rushed for three scores.
His sophomore totals also included two interceptions, three fumble recoveries and three caused fumbles.

So far with Marco’s postseason honors, he has been named Contra Costa County Player of the Year by the San Jose Mercury News. He also was named as the Peter Villa award winner by the Danville Rotary Club, which is significant since senior teammate Luke Baker (the SRV quarterback) was the winner last year and also was the Bay Area Player of the Year as a junior. We don’t choose a Bay Area player of the year for Cal-Hi Sports, and while others who do didn’t select Jones, it’s safe to say that he would have gotten our vote and we’ve seen players in the Bay Area since the late 1970s.

Jones’ college recruiting situation also shows him to be a huge target next year for all of the major power five programs. He has 22 listed offers entering January, including those from Alabama, Michigan, Washington, USC, Notre Dame and more.

Based on social media posts, Marco is the son of former two-time all-state small schools football player Anwawn Jones from Montclair Prep (Van Nuys). Anwawn also was an all-state Grid-Hoop selection for 1996 and was selected as State Small Schools Athlete of the Year for 1995-96. He later played football at Northwestern. We saw him play for the Mounties in the 1995 CIF Division V state basketball final at the Oakland Coliseum.

It may be hard for Jones to duplicate this honor among seniors next year since a large core of San Ramon Valley’s team is graduating. But he’s like a Fred Warner out there in the middle of the defense and who knows what might happen for his development as a player.


At the end of the 2022 football season, Folsom’s quarterback position was shown to be manned by junior Austin Mack, committed to Washington. But only a few weeks later, Mack had re-classified to 2023 from 2024 and wouldn’t be back to lead the Bulldogs. It turned out that it made no difference.

Ryder Lyons figures to be one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits for the Class of 2026. Photo: Scott Kurtz.

Mack’s departure simply opened the door for Lyons to be the next in a long line of Folsom quarterbacks. And by the second game against two-time CIF Open Division state runner-up Serra of San Mateo it was clear that Lyons was going to be near the top of the school’s all-time best at the position. It wasn’t that he threw 10 touchdown passes in his first game as a sophomore, which is what Jake Browning did back in 2012 on his way to numerous state & national records, it was how he battled back from getting pummeled repeatedly by a physically tough Serra defense to give his team a chance at the end in a 21-14 loss.

With Folsom ending its season with a dramatic 20-14 win over St. Bonaventure of Ventura for the CIF D1-A state championship, Lyons is now matching Browning in 2012 by being selected as State Sophomore of the Year. Browning also is the last state sophomore of the year from the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section. The only other one on the all-time list (which goes back to 1962) is the first one: Mark Marquess from Stagg of Stockton (who later became a legendary baseball coach at Stanford).

Browning put up insane totals as a sophomore with 5,248 yards passing and 63 touchdowns and as a senior also was Mr. Football for the state. Lyons didn’t come close to those numbers for his sophomore year, but who ever has in state history? He did finish with 3,578 yards passing with 38 touchdowns and he already runs the ball better than any Folsom quarterback ever has. Ryder had 929 yards rushing and 23 TDs.

As a passer, Lyons’ top outing was 23 of 33 for 411 yards and four TDs in a league win vs Oak Ridge of El Dorado Hills. As a rusher, he had 21 carries for 191 yards in a playoff win vs Inderkum of Sacramento plus 27 for 122 yards and three TDs in the NorCal regional playoff win vs Pittsburg.

In the CIF state final, Ryder connected with sophomore teammate Jameson Powell on a 3-yard TD pass with 25 seconds left that accounted for the game-winning points. He ended the night with 21 carries for 100 yards and one TD plus 14 of 22 passing for 145 yards and the one score.

USC head coach Lincoln Riley went to the Pittsburg regional final and offered Lyons a scholarship the next week. USC also is where Ryder’s older brother, Walker, has committed to play. He won’t be going to Los Angeles, however, for two years as the Lyons family is deeply tied to its Mormon faith and Walker will be serving a two-year mission to Norway. Ryder had a couple of plays as a freshman on the Folsom varsity last season, but wasn’t able to throw any passes to Walker as his senior season ended early in the first game with a knee injury. Going into the season, Walker was regarded as one of the top tight end prospects in the nation.

With two more years to go, Lyons has a chance to further establish himself as one of best recent QBs from Northern California. It won’t take long to see how much he has improved from this season, either. Next year’s team opens at home on Aug. 23 against Long Beach Poly and then the very next week will host Serra.

Zach Benitez is the freshman QB who was a big reason why Granite Hills of El Cajon won the CIF San Diego Section Open Division title. Photo:


This is just the second-ever State Freshman Player of the Year that we’ve done and it frankly was a rather easy one, perhaps even more so than last year’s honoree, Brady Smigiel of Newbury Park. Benitez, after all, was the QB of the CIF San Diego Section Open Division champions and in the playoffs had one game where he statistically played pretty even with Alabama-bound big-time college recruit Julian Sayin of Carlsbad.

Coming off of the 2022 CIF D2-A state title, Granite Hills head coach Kellan Cobbs knew he had some key returning players and knew that the Eagles would be playing in a higher division (D1) in the section playoffs. He chose the 6-foot, 200-pound Benitez to be the starting quarterback as a freshman and early in the season didn’t throw the ball much. Once Benitez proved he could sling it effectively and under pressure, the Granite Hills offense improved and by the Open Division playoffs (which consist of the top four teams from the D1 field of teams) the team was right there on even terms with two other unbeaten teams — defending champion Lincoln and Carlsbad.

In the CIFSD Open semifinals, the Eagles took on Carlsbad and prevailed in a shootout, 46-45, in overtime. Benitez completed 23 of 32 passes for 234 yards and one TD with no interceptions. Sayin passed for 257 yards and three TDs with one interception. In the championship game, Benitez helped the Eagles get past Lincoln, 27-26, in another thriller. He passed for 224 yards and two two scores. While Mission Viejo had its way with Granite Hills in the CIF SoCal D1-AA regional final, Benitez as a starting QB for the No. 11 team in the state clearly had the best season among all freshmen in the state.

For the season, Zach passed for 2,281 yards and 23 touchdowns. He added 98 yards rushing and three scores. His best passing performance of 252 yards and four TDs came in a win against Steele Canyon of Spring Valley. He has since been named All-CIF San Diego Section and now he collects a top statewide honor.


The magical senior season for Donelson began with one of the most bizarre games we’ve ever heard of. It was against Ripon Christian of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section and the Cavaliers won it 63-41 despite only having 12 plays compared to Ripon Christian’s 75. It happened that way mainly because Donelson scored on five long runs in one or two-play drives and finished with seven carries for 327 yards, an average of 46.7 per carry, which is a total that makes the Cal-Hi Sports state record book.

Bryson Donelson led Central Valley Christian to the CIF D2-A state championship. Photo:

It is not the first total for Donelson for the season that will go on to all-time state lists. Helped by his team winning the CIF Central Section D2 title and then the CIF D2-A state championship, Donelson led the state in scoring and rushing. The Fresno State-bound standout was an easy choice to be Medium Schools State Player of the Year and it could be said was runner-up to be the Mr. Football State Player of the Year.

The last State Medium Schools Player of the Year from the CIF Central Section, Kazmeir Allen of Tulare in 2017, set the national touchdowns scored record. The previous winner before that from the section was Kingsburg’s Garrett Steele for 2010. There has never been a state player of the year before at CVC or from a Visalia high school.

In the CIF D2-A state final vs Los Gatos that the Cavaliers held on to win, 45-42, Donelson had 32 carries for 202 yards and three TDs. He had perhaps his best game in the previous week’s CIF SoCal regional championship with 26 carries for 358 yards and three TDs plus a 95-yard kickoff return in a 55-38 triumph over Simi Valley.

For the season, Donelson had a state-leading 3,297 yards rushing in 15 games, which also will rank No. 18 in state history. He will rank even higher for touchdowns and scoring. He had 58 TDs overall, which will be tied for fourth on the all-time list with Christian Hunter from Kaiser of Fontana (2018). With his nine two-point conversions added on, Donelson will be third by himself for points scored with 366. The only higher totals — 432 by Allen in 2017 and 388 by Tyler Ebell of Ventura for 2000 — were set during seasons in which the two players set the national touchdown record.

Two comeback wins for Donelson and the Cavaliers in the D2 section playoffs also made everything at the end possible. First, they had to rally from a 34-13 deficit at halftime and then 42-28 with eight minutes left to get a 43-42 win in the semifinals over Tulare. Donelson had to get a touchdown and then a two-point conversion in the final minute to clinch it. Then in the section title game, Donelson split the defense on a 52-yard pass play from QB Brent Kroeze with 4:28 left to give CVC the winning points in a 27-26 win against Lemoore. That win also avenged a loss by the Cavaliers to Lemoore in the 2022 D2 section final.

Donelson missed games at the start of his junior season at CVC due to a transfer from his previous school, El Diamante of Visalia. He won’t have to wait to play next season at Fresno State and we’re pretty sure the local fans can’t wait to see how Bryson develops there.

Hunter Babb of Caruthers scored six touchdowns in three consecutive games this season. Photo:


The state’s No. 2 scorer and rusher behind Bryson Donelson of Central Valley Christian also was from the CIF Central Section, but Hunter Babb of Caruthers played at a small school. His rushing and scoring accomplishments also were exceptional enough despite his team not going far in the D4 section playoffs that he has been selected above all other small school players in the state for the 2023 season.

The Central Section has had its share of small school state players of the year in recent seasons. It had back-to-back honorees for 2017 and 2018 with Alex Aguilar of Shafter and Joseph Garcia of Strathmore. There also was a running back in 2013 similar to Babb in Edgar Segura of Mendota and in 2009 there was a quarterback who has done very well for himself later on in life, Derek Carr of Bakersfield Christian.

Babb was on a state record pace for scoring midway during the season when he had six touchdowns in three straight games. He slowed a little after that, but still led the state for regular season scoring with 266 points, a total that also ranks first all-time for the Central Section and will be 13th in state history. Hunter’s top outing of 29 carries for 440 yards and six TDs against Riverdale also came during that streak. He finished with 46 TDs and 292 points to rank second behind Donelson for the overall season, but Donelson had six playoff games compared to just one for Babb. Both totals still will go on to the all-time state lists as will Hunter’s career totals of 104 touchdowns and 624 points.

For rushing yards, Babb had 3,245 yards in his 11 games, which was leading the state until Donelson rushed for 202 yards in his 15th game and passed him by just 52 yards. For his career, Babb wound up with 6,535 yards, which will make the state record book and will be fifth all-time for the section.

Hunter mentioned in a recent Q&A with Cal-Hi Sports that he has had to move around around a lot in his life due to situations with his mother’s “addiction and health,” but credits his uncle, Josh Babb, and other family for providing stability. There are no college offers for him, but one would assume he will head to a local junior college to play next season. That path has worked out for other small school players with no offers in the Central Section before.

Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of He can be reached at Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: @CalHiSports

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