Tony Lewis remembers when he didn't know if he'd have enough attendance at Merced College football Spring practices to run seven-on-seven drills.
Those days must seem like a lifetime ago for the Blue Devils' coach -- who is starting to see the current upswing of football talent around the Central Valley paying dividends for his program.
The sheer number of kids turning out daily to this year's spring practices is evidence of that.
Lewis said the average attendance of 75 to 80 players is the most he's ever enjoyed in his 31 seasons at the college.
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And more than just numbers, the talent level is at an all-time high.
"Obviously we have a lot of returning players, but the number of incoming freshman that are voluntarily practicing with us is at an all-time high," Lewis said.
"These aren't just kids who had some success playing flag football and thought they'd come out.
"We've got real players out here. It's very exciting right now."
The numbers are so good that Lewis and his staff have been forced to contemplate something that's never been an issue before.
Lewis might have to turn people away.
"In all my years here we've always been able to find a jersey for everybody," Lewis said.
Such concerns are still a long way off.
As Lewis constantly reminds me, "You never know what you have until the first day of school in the fall."
Still, all signs point towards a renewed interest in Blue Devils football.
It started last fall, when a good portion of Merced High's graduating seniors from the Sac-Joaquin Section title runner-up team hit the MC campus.
Lewis' recruiting class created a buzz around the program, which proved justified when got out onto the field.
A double-overtime loss to Laney in the Blues Devils' season finale cost them a conference title and with it a bowl bid.
But the buzz remained.
A couple hundred people turned out for the game, with some of next year's incoming freshman possibly amongst them.
Sophomore wide receiver Marquese McIntyre doesn't see the positive energy dying down anytime soon.
"We we did last year has a lot to do with our recruiting," McIntyre said. "We showed everybody around Merced that we're here and we're going to compete.
"Look around right now. Every position you have, we have a ton of depth at right now.
"One of the things we were worried about was offensive linemen and there's like 16 of them out here."
The talent level runs deep too.
With the likes of Merced's David DeLaTorre and Jamichael Turner, Golden Valley's Jeremy Jacobo and Chowchilla's Wyatt Seaman all turning out, Lewis' prospective freshman class reads like the Sun-Star's All-Area Team.
"The area's football is really getting stronger every year thanks to the local coaches," Lewis said. "A lot of them are putting an emphasis on guys furthering their education.
"It's a great situation for us to be in."
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.