There are five strong teams battling for the three section playoff spots available to the Valley Oak League this season.
And considering the physical nature of the play in the VOL, the weak-hearted need not apply.
"The VOL is a tough league," said Jose Ramirez, a senior forward from Central Valley High. "I thought if would be easier this season because some of the really tough players from last year were seniors. It's still tough and it will stay that way.
"But I like to play the physical game. You have to body-up. If there wasn't contact involved in soccer I think the game would be boring. The physical play helps us to get more pumped-up as a team."
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The Hawks have emerged as the front-runner in the VOL, with a four-point lead on second-place Ceres. Last week, CV played Sierra to a 2-2 tie for the second time this season, then beat Lathrop 8-0 on Thursday to improve to 8-0-2 in VOL play and 11-2-4 overall.
That record gives Central Valley 26 points, with Ceres (7-2-1, 22 points) Sierra (6-1-3, 21) East Union (6-3-1, 19) and Oakdale (5-3-1, 16) all still in the playoff hunt.
The playoff picture could be clearer after this week's action. Oakdale can get back in control of its own destiny with strong efforts today at Ceres and Thursday at Sierra, while Ceres visits East Union on Thursday in another key VOL game.
"Our league is one of the strongest leagues," said Sierra coach Jose Mendes. "If you do well in the VOL and go on to the playoffs, most likely you'll do well there. The teams that win our league more often than not end up playing for a section championship.
"You know what's at stake in every match. Every time we play elements of a championship match are there. Any team in this league can win at any time, and that what makes our league unique."
Last week's Sierra-Central Valley match in Manteca was typical of the games played between any of the top five teams in the league. There were a lot of hard, clean tackles and a few not-so-clean takeouts -- most of which were spotted by the referees.
The game turned on an officials' call in the 63rd minute, when a Sierra defender in front of the goal threw up his arms while being pushed from behind, just in time for a crossing pass to hit him in the hand. Central Valley converted the ensuing penalty kick to forge the tie.
"Sierra is the strongest team that we've played so far," said Central Valley Coach Omar Leon. "We always play physical games against Sierra and Ceres, and the players seem to know that going in, so they know they have to come out aggressive and keep playing that way. We know it can get out of hand sometimes, but that's what the referees are for and they do a very good job of keeping things in control."
The converted penalty kick kept Sierra from matching Central Valley in the loss column, and put pressure on the Timberwolves heading into the final weeks of the regular season.
"We still can reach the top, and that's still our goal, but we have three ties," Mendes said. "That hurts. Three ties are like two losses. It seems like we've had some calls not in our favor in some of these close games -- and in close games one call can make a difference.
"But in our league there's Sierra and four other teams and we're all fighting for the three spots. Each day you play you're fighting for something."
The second Modesto Metro Conference triple-bill of the season is set for today and tonight at Downey High. Beyer and Downey meet at 3:30 p.m., with the Davis-Enochs game to follow and the Modesto-Johansen game wrapping it up at 7:30 p.m.
The final triple-header, with the pairings to be determined by MMC standings, will be held on Oct. 27.
If you are a coach and would like to see your team or a particular player featured in this weekly high school soccer journal, contact Brian VanderBeek at firstname.lastname@example.org.