2016 Foothill League football preview

Valencia's Jayvaun Wilson, left, is one of the newcomers who makes the Vikings such a dangerous team. Signal photo by Dan Watson.

If the 2016 high school football season has taught us anything so far, it’s that you can’t sleep on any team in the Foothill League. The race for the league championship is going to be a photo finish, and the film hasn’t even begun to develop.

All teams have emerged from preleague play with winning records. Saugus High was the only team to go undefeated. Three others went 4-1.

Here’s a look at each Foothill team, in the order they finished last year:

Valencia (3-2 overall)

Can Valencia win league, again?

The Vikings have the talent, even if it’s young talent, to win an eighth straight Foothill League title. Newcomers at running back (junior Moises Haynes, 628 yards, 10 touchdowns), receiver (sophomore Mykael Wright, 145 yards in three games) and on the defensive line (junior Josh Washington, 12 tackles for loss) complement a strong returning core.

And senior quarterback Aaron Thomas (1,341 yards, seven TDs, two INTs) keeps improving.

A new champion is crowned if….

…the Vikings don’t learn to finish games. Two halftime leads, against Chaminade and Calabasas, turned into blowout losses during preleague play.

“You would think after it’s happened so many times we’d figured it out,” Thomas said after a 37-21 loss to Calabasas last Friday. “…In the end, it comes down to the mentality of the players. It’s something we as players have to fix.”

To be fair, Chaminade and Calabasas are loaded with talent, the type of talent Valencia usually schedules in preleague play.

Valencia has started 3-2 or worse five times since 2009. It’s won league every time.

“We can’t look at this as a bad thing going into league,” Thomas said Friday. “We still had a really good preleague season.”

Saugus (5-0)

What does the 5-0 preleague record mean?

The Centurions went 5-0 in preleague play for the first time since at least 2003. The mark’s significance depends on how you look at it.

“I think our execution has been good on both offense and defense,” Bornn said. “Both sides have had their moments of excellence and challenges, and when one side is struggling, the other side picks it up and vice versa.”

Admittedly, though, Bornn didn’t schedule any overwhelming opponents from seasons past. He aimed to challenge the Centurions with teams he felt were equal to them.

“Schools we have played in the past, we would have had to play an unbelievably perfect game,” Bornn said. “And even then we would have had a tough time winning. I think (this year) we tried to schedule teams that match up well with us and give us a great contest, and we feel we did that.”

Three of Saugus’ wins have come by four points or less.

They win league if…

The Centurions are built on a rock-solid defense and an explosive passing game. If Saugus (led by defensive end Jaelin Kinney and linebacker Daniel Gilmartin) can continue to hold teams to around 16 points per game, quarterback Nathan Eldridge and a bevy of receivers can certainly do the rest.

“Between Jared Pane (22 catches, 329 yards, four touchdowns) and Daniel Gilmartin (20 catches, 260 yards, five TDs) and Gary Bojorquez (14/226/3) and Chase Seyforth (10/127/1), those are four guys that can all go up and catch a ball,” said coach Jason Bornn.

Hart (4-1)

Question answered

A void was left in Hart’s receiving corps after graduation.

But a new crop of wideouts has stepped up for the Indians.

In preleague play, Daniel Madison had 23 catches for 301 yards. Grant Thuente had 17 grabs for 293 yards. Jack Sheehe had 15 catches for 240 yards. AJ Stanley had 6 catches for 101 yards.

And there are plenty of other options (see running back Chase Garcia) aside from those four for that quarterback Nick Moore can throw the ball to.

“We can go to guys like AJ Stanley, who also plays defense,” Madison said. “We can also go to the guys like Da’Von Jones who is a free safety as well and we’re also developing guys like Gabe Ruelas and other guys for next year, too. But I think we have a lot of weapons in the receiver corps, with AJ, me, Jack and of course Grant Thuente who started last year, too.”

They win league if…

…the defense continues to be a consistent force, and the offense and special teams correct a few things.

The Indians have a great quarterback in Moore (1,247 yards, 15 TDs, four INTs) but have struggled at times to keep him upright.

The kicking game and punt coverage unit cost them in a loss to St. Bonaventure of Ventura.

Golden Valley (4-1)

Building on 2015

It’s hard to believe that the Grizzlies won their first league game only a year ago. This team tore through its 2016 preleague slate, allowing only 17 points in its first four games before losing to Rio Mesa of Oxnard by a mere three points.

Even though it didn’t go undefeated, Golden Valley has a lot to be proud of. Josh Valano, in his first year as starting quarterback, has completed 54-of-97 passes for 741 yards. Running back KJ Maduike has been a force on the ground, rushing for 581 yards on 76 carries.

MORE football: Running backs taking on larger roles

Darius Anthony has been leading the team defensively with 68 tackles this year, 44 of the solo variety, and 4.5 sacks.

They win league if…

The defense is solid, and Maduike is a strong and consistent weapon on offense. That’s a solid foundation, but the Grizzlies will have to continue developing their passing game.

The good news is that the connection of Valano to receiver Jalin Lewis shows promise. Lewis has hauled in 18 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns.

Canyon (4-1)

Reason for the turnaround

Canyon was lacking in the leadership department last year, and it showed in wins and losses (the Cowboys finished 2-8). This season, they’re eager to improve.

“These kids, they’re hungry,” Canyon coach Rich Gutierrez said in week four. “It’s always about the other schools and that’s OK. We didn’t do well last year, so it’s OK. So with this team, it created a hunger and that hunger showed last week.”

Players on offense and defense are competing at a higher level, which was proven in the Cowboys’ four-game win streak to close out preleague play.

MORE football: All six Foothill teams in CIF polls

They win league if…

…the defense keeps improving (the Cowboys have allowed fewer points each game than the week before), and the offense continues to run the ball the way it has been.

The offensive line, comprised of a mix of Colton Costanza, Tim Huss, Justin Hamalainen, Luis Vargas, Richard Bueno and Philip Carrillo, has been opening holes for running backs Henry Arellano (479 yards) and Brian Devereaux (314 yards).

That, in turn, has taken pressure off the passing game. Quarterback Miles Fallin has thrown for 970 yards, nine TDs and three interceptions.

“It starts with the offensive line,” Gutierrez said. “That sounds cliche, but it’s really not. If you have those five dudes up front, those six guys, whoever rotates in, if they’re all on the same page, same direction, same communication level, it makes a world of difference.”

West Ranch (3-2)

Reason for the turnaround

The Wildcats needed a breath of fresh air after last season’s 3-7 finish, and they got it in the form of some fresh faces. It started with Chris Varner, a battle-tested head coach who gave the team a newfound sense of grit.

Senior Jake Rice stepped in to take over primary running back duties and has excelled, accumulating 536 rushing yards in preleague play. Sophomore Ryan Camacho has provided life in the defensive backfield with four interceptions .

They win league if…

Two of the Wildcats’ three wins have come by a touchdown or less.

They’ll need that grit in an uphill battle to put West Ranch football back on the map.

To do that, the defense will play an important part, and it’ll be up to experienced players like defensive back Hunter Anderson and linebackers Jordan Fortner and Tristan Georgio.

“My kids, they have heart,” Varner said. “We’ve been down in every game and been able to battle back. Even in the games we lost, we fought to the very end, down to last minutes of every game. That’s encouraging. We’re going to need that kind of battle-tested (mindset) for league. We’re certainly the underdog.”

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