HILMAR -- When it comes to the Western Athletic Conference, Frank Marques knows one team sets the bar for all the rest.
And though it pains him to admit it...
It's not his Hilmar team.
"Central," said Marques, referring to Modesto's Central Catholic -- the Division III state runner-up a season ago and two-time WAC champion.
"They're the standard we all have to play to. They've got a great coach (Roger Canepa) and a great program. Central does an awesome job. We know that if we can compete with them, we've arrived."
Thanks to a confluence of factors, Hilmar could do more than compete with the conference's brass this season.
Central and Patterson are retooling, while Hilmar returns a bevy of second- and third-year players.
That nucleus has left Marques -- an excitable guy to begin with -- downright giddy.
Hilmar hasn't won a league title since 2005, despite accumulating a 14-6 record over the last two seasons.
Last year, Marques' boys went 7-3 and missed the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
"I'm really excited about this group," Marques said. "I really am. This is the best talent I've had in years and I've been around a long time.
"There isn't that one superstar that can take the focus away from the rest of the team. To tell you the truth, I'm probably more excited about a great team than a great player.
"Don't get me wrong, coaching (Oregon quarterback Nathan Costa) was incredible. But coaching a great team is incredible in a different way."
Fittingly, the herd is anchored by...
Well, third-year starter Tommy Herd, a two-way lineman.
Herd is one of 10 seniors projected to start on the offensive side of the ball -- a list that includes running back Hugh Ewing and a trio of quick, sure-handed receivers.
The lone junior -- quarterback Quinton McCown -- is a legacy player. McCown's older brother Justin, now at Merced College, was a standout quarterback and defensive back at Hilmar.
"It was hard not making the playoffs," Herd said. "A lot of the seniors, even some of the juniors, thought last year would be our year.
"We won seven games last year," he later added. "I think that would classify as a very successful season, but I'm hoping we improve. I want to go further in league, make the playoffs and go from there."
Wide receiver Carl Jameson, a returning two-way starter, is also drawing inspiration from last season's letdowns.
"Every time I think about it, I get that sick feeling in my stomach," the 6-foot, 190-pound senior said. "I think: What could have been? Or I'll think about that extra yard I could have gained or the touchdown I could have scored."
Of course, Hilmar hasn't accomplished anything yet. And it won't until it proves it can knock off the WAC's resident big boys: Central Catholic on Oct. 24 and Patterson on Nov. 14.
The pair thrashed Hilmar in 2007, winning by a combined margin of 82-16.
"Bring on Central. Bring on Patterson," Marques said. "This year, I don't care. I've got those games circled. Why not? We're ready for them.
"I'll play anybody. With these guys, with this talent, I'll take on anybody."