Carter Azevedo remembers coming to Hilmar High football games as a kid. He was one of the many kids in the grass area in the corner of the stadium playing football during the games.
Now Azevedo is getting ready for the start of his senior season.
“You grow up hearing the names like Joseph Bello with the tackle,” Azevedo said. “We listened to those names as kids. Now we’re those names.”
Seniors like Azevedo, Tristan Crowley and Tyler Amarante couldn’t wait to finally put on the Yellowjackets uniforms when they were kids. In one-high-school towns like Hilmar, Friday nights in the fall are an event. The town comes together to cheer the football team.
“It’s one of the best communities to be around on Friday nights,” Amarante said.
“It’s like a celebration every Friday night,” Crowley added.
For seniors, this is it. One final season in the spotlight and they want to make the most of it.
“It’s my 15th year as head coach so some of these freshmen weren’t even born when I started,” said Hilmar coach Frank Marques. “Some of the kids in our program were the ones standing around when they were little or playing football on the side during games. We have family names that keep popping up like Azevedo. They are the sons or grandsons, the third and fourth generation coming through the program.”
That’s what makes the Trans-Valley League special. It’s small-town football at it’s best with schools such as Hilmar, Escalon and Hughson. A trio of longtime rivals with similar backgrounds.
That’s whey Hilmar fought hard to get back into the TVL during the last Sac-Joaquin Section realignment. The TVL has long been one of the best small-school leagues in the state.
Since 2010, Hilmar and Escalon have combined to reach a Sac-Joaquin Section championship game six times with each team winning one blue banner. Both schools should battle it out for the TVL title again this year.
“Us, Hughson and Escalon are the same demographics, the same community support,” Marques said. “I’m excited to see Livingston come back in the league. They’re another small community with the same support. It’s cool playing on Friday nights in front of packed stadiums.”
The Yellowjackets will be young this season, but have four juniors that saw significant time as sophomores last year in Nick Aguilar (offensive line/linebacker), Jared Collier (offensive line/defensive line), Justin Rentfro (running back/linebacker) and Isaac Sharp (running back/cornerback).
Crowley became the starter at quarterback in the final two games last season after starter Chase Kindberg went down with a knee injury late in the season against Mountain House.
The Yellowjackets should feature a balanced attack out of their spread offense.
“I think our system is one of our biggest strengths,” Marques said. “The kids are familiar with it. All the offense is the same. They’ve all been in the system for a while. So we’re already ahead of the game as far as that goes.”
Losing Kindberg at the end of the year and running back Joshua Lee Jennings at the beginning of the year played a big role in the Yellowjackets’ exit in the first round of the playoffs last year against Colfax.
The defending TVL champs want to work to get themselves in the same position in the postseason this year to make a run at a section championship.
“The TVL isn’t everything for us,” Crowley said. “It’s the blue banner. I honestly feel we can win it.”
Players to Watch
1. Michael Winters, running back/defensive back, Ripon: Michael Winters is the Indians’ top returner, an all-Trans-Valley League running back with big-play ability. Winters rushed for 528 yards and five touchdowns on just 69 carries in 2016, averaging nearly eight yards per attempt.
2. Kaden Christensen, athlete, Escalon: One of three sophomores called up to the varsity team by coach Mark Loureiro, who may retire after the season. Christensen can impact the game in all three phases, and should provide a spark the Cougars lacked last season.
3. Davion Gates, running back, Modesto Christian: Gates rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, despite sharing carries with four-year standout Chris Brown. Gates finished his junior season with 1,036 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he averaged nearly 9.6 yards per carry.
4. Paul Puaauli, running back/linebacker, Modesto Christian: Puaauli missed his entire junior season after tearing an ACL during a 7-on-7 competition in South Lake Tahoe. Puaauli is a versatile talent for the Crusaders. As a sophomore, he rushed for 587 yards and eight touchdowns, registered 74 tackles, and forced two turnovers.
5. Ryan Daggett, quarterback, Ripon: Started last season as a sophomore. Will be without his top target, though. Wide receiver Aaron Paschini graduated. Daggett completed 54 percent of his passes (68 of 127) last season for 1,095 yards and 13 touchdowns.
2016 Final Standings
School (league, overall records)
Hilmar (5-0, 9-2)
Ripon (4-1, 6-5)
Modesto Christian (3-2, 5-6)
Escalon (2-3, 4-6)
Hughson (1-4, 4-6)
Mountain House (0-5, 1-9)