There wasn't a more physical team in the Stanislaus District last year than Johansen High, as it relentlessly pounded foes with its ground game.
The Vikings' offensive line would knock folks silly with a short thrust, then the backs would run through while the defense regained its senses.
That hit-and-run philosophy earned them a spot in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I quarterfinal, one of the most successful runs by a Modesto public school in two decades.
No one's going to care about that Sept. 12, when Johansen visits Sonora to open the 2009 high school football season.
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"Everything's new this fall, just like every season," guard Michael Smith said. "It was a great season, going so deep in the playoffs, but we're a new group trying to do it again."
The Vikings aren't alone.
They're one of 48 Stanislaus District teams prepping for the season, but most of them will put in three more tough weeks of practice and a scrimmage before they kick off.
There might not be another team in the district that has to accomplish as much as Johansen before its first game. It lost nearly every player who touched the ball last year.
The Vikings had 463 carries for 3,683 yards and 42 TDs in 2008, but this year's roster had a combined seven carries for 47 yards and no TDs. Joe Reynosa, who threw all 64 of the team's passes, is also gone.
That means 99 percent of its offense graduated, but Smith isn't worried about this year.
"We have good skill players again and we'll be better balanced with the run and pass," said the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder, the only returning starter on the line. "We are getting better each day we practice."
Like many teams, Johansen also is breaking in a new quarterback. Armando Hernandez led the junior varsity to a 5-5 record last year, averaging about 20 passes a game the second half of the season.
"I like going deep, but I've got to hit short passes first," Hernandez said. "I was up for the playoffs last year and saw the difference in speed and size, JV to varsity."
Hernandez enters a crucial period of his development, going from JV to varsity. Athleticism is often enough to succeed on the lower level, but it isn't enough for the varsity.
"He hasn't just been throwing the ball this summer, he's been learning how to recognize defenses and coverages," coach Jason McCoy said. "We know we'll be passing more often, so he's got to be ready."
The good news for Johansen is that they've got a full three weeks before kickoff.
Five Central California Conference teams open on Sept. 5, so-called Week Zero games.
That means Pitman, Golden Valley, Merced, Los Banos and Buhach Colony are fast-tracking their practices — squeezing as much work as possible into the next 10 days.
Pitman, like Johansen, will be led by a new quarterback when it opens at defending Northern Section champion Paradise. Hayden Baldwin began the summer as the favorite for the job, and locked it up with a sharp offseason.
Los Banos didn't need an offseason competition to find its quarterback: Erik Martin threw for 2,337 yards and a district-high 30 TDs last year.
Merced might face the biggest Week Zero challenge, after being hit as hard as Johansen by graduation losses.
"We've been in this spot before, having to make up for a lot of losses," said coach Rob Scheidt, whose Bears beat Johansen in last year's quarterfinal. "But you know, we usually do a good job finding kids to get the job done for us."
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.