Picking a football favorite in the Central California Conference isn’t easy.
Turlock and Merced were the favorites heading into the season and for good reason. Neither team has done anything in the first four weeks to make you think they won’t be vying for a championship. The Bulldogs return co-MVP Danny Velasquez. The Bears have won three consecutive conference championships and 18 CCC games in a row.
However, other CCC teams may have closed the gap.
Pitman enters league play after going a perfect 4-0 against a challenging nonconference schedule.
Golden Valley has its best team in a decade and is also 4-0 with some key returning three-year players in running back Isaiah Montanez and quarterback Armando Muzquiz.
Buhach Colony also has been impressive at times, going 2-2 in the first four weeks.
Don’t ask Merced coach Rob Scheidt to pick a favorite.
“It’s hard to assess,” said Scheidt, whose Bears (3-1) open at home against Pitman on Friday night. “You look at Turlock, who I think played one of the toughest schedules top to bottom. We know they are a good football team. Not too many teams are going to be better than Pitman. If there are teams better than Pitman, it’s going to be tough to beat them.
“One of the big questions is us with a young quarterback. Dhameer (Warren) has done a great job, don’t get me wrong. It’s more coach’s anxiety than anything. Then you look at Golden Valley and they are undefeated. Buhach Colony is another team that played a difficult schedule. They were tested against good teams like Manteca and Clovis North. There’s not going to be a game going in where you feel you’ve got this.”
While it may be tough to predict a winner, it’s easy to predict it’s going to be fun to watch it unfold.
It starts with some interesting matchups Friday night with Pitman at Merced, Buhach Colony at Turlock and Golden Valley at El Capitan. Atwater (0-3) will play a nonconference game at Ceres (1-3).
All games are scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
Pitman has definitely caught Scheidt’s attention. The Pride is limiting teams to just 17 points per game on defense and running back Devan Bass has been a big-play guy for the Pride.
“First and foremost, you can get caught up in their offense, and their offense is good,” Scheidt said. “But when you evaluate their players, they are really good on defense. They won a 7-6 game against Napa. They held a good Downey team to 22 points. They came back to beat Lincoln.
“They’ve got a good quarterback (Jacob Perez), they have a dynamic running back (Bass) and they are doing things outside their wing-T offense. Facing Pitman, their scheme doesn’t scare us. We knew how to prepare for their scheme. It’s the players they have that scare us.”
The question is can Pitman match up to Merced’s speed?
The Bears have their own stable of big-play athletes, starting with running back Ulonzo Gilliam, who is averaging a robust 13.6 yards per carry on his way to 668 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Rayveon Slaton gives Merced a nice one-two punch out of the backfield. Slaton is averaging 9.8 yards per carry with 281 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bears also have plenty of weapons in the passing game for Warren with receivers Paul Scoggins, Tanner Pellissier, Stephen Williams and Xavier Stewart.
Meanwhile, across town, Golden Valley faces an El Capitan team that has played Gregori and Fresno tough in losses the last two weeks. The Gauchos have been improved on defense and their defense will be focused on Golden Valley’s Montanez.
The Cougars senior has rushed for 683 yards and seven touchdowns.
Buhach Colony will make the trip to Turlock, which will be playing its first true home game this season with the turf at Joe Debely Stadium finally fit for play.
“What I’ve seen of Turlock on film is what everyone expected from them,” said Buhach Colony coach Kevin Navarra. “That’s why they were pretty much picked to finish as one of the top teams in the CCC. They return talent, size and speed.”
The Thunder will be hard-pressed to repeat their 69-point outburst last week against Pacheco but has received consistent contributions from Alex Andrade, who has rushed for 473 yards and three touchdowns.
The Thunder enters league play needing four wins to get to the magic six wins, which has been the number needed to qualify for the playoffs.
Navarra knows four wins in the CCC won’t be easy. He says he’ll be surprised if one team runs the table.
“I’ve never been that guy that says there are three guaranteed wins and we have to find one win in our other three games,” Navarra said. “It’s the same old we’ve got to take it one game at a time. If we can get to four wins, you’re probably talking about competing for a strong second place or a league title in our league.”