At long last, football season is officially here. A handful of teams play Zero Week games this week.
The Bee will launch its regional Top 20 on Thursday, with a feature on Grant. Next week: more rankings, league previews, a look at the top 25 players in the area, a look at the new playoff format and other features.
For now, we debut a Sac-Joaquin Section preseason top 10 (and last year's record). We will post section rankings every Monday.
Suggestion for all the experts: If you think a team should be in the top 10, don't forget to mention who you believe should not be in there. The Section Top 10 is a true best-of-the-best crew. Dig in.
1. Grant (14-0)
The Pacers return just three starters from the magical 14-0 state CIF championship bunch - best team in Sacramento history, anyone? - but wow, talk about talented returnees. What's more, Grant coach Mike Alberghini has some exceptional depth from last year and a host of players from an 8-2 JV team to make another section title run, such as the versatile Shaq Thompson (could play any of five positions). RB Devontae Butler and DT Viliami Moala are major recruits. Butler, tough and determined in the Onterrio Smith mold, rushed for 1,964 yards and 37 total touchdowns despite not becoming the fulltime back until nearly a month into the season. Alberghini is every bit Grant football - tough, determined, productive, admired. In his 18 seasons, he has had 18 playoff teams, 15 league championship teams, six section title teams and two unbeaten super powers in the last three seasons. His program was The Bee's Team of the Decade in the 1990s and very well could be The Team of the Decade for the 2000s, too (up through 2010, that is). The Pacers debut at No. 6 in the state preseason rankings, which seems a bit low. This is Grant we're talking about. Grant opens at home on Friday against always formidable Montgomery of Santa Rosa.
2. St. Mary's (12-3)
The Rams reached the CIF Division II bowl game after downing Pleasant Grove in the section D-I championship, and despite losing star QB Cody Vaz to Oregon State, the Stockton school could be even better this fall. New QB Marcus McDade sparkled in summer passing leagues and camps and is rated the No. 2 senior QB in Northern California by NorCalPreps, and he will flourish in a wide-open system under coach Tony Franks. McDade has some terrific receivers in recruits Josh Harper and Louie Lechich, each of whom had 1,000 yards receiving a year ago. The Rams open at Jesuit on Sept. 12, a year after blowing the Marauders clear out of Stockton. Jesuit is much improved, however. Should the Rams repeat as section champs, no surprise.
3. Nevada Union (10-2)
The Miners of Grass Valley roared back to their customary spot among the elite last fall after a downer of a 2007 season that included tough losses and an assortment of injuries. Coach Dave Humphers returns a ton of talent, so much so that NU could very well wind up back in the City Championship game. The Miners return 13 starters, including anchors in QB Broughan Jantz (1,441 yards, 19 TDs), a real weapon of versatility and poise, and LB Zach Vallejo, a tackling machine in the Matt Beck/Spencer Havner mode of yesteryear. NU has the makings of one of its greatest teams, and they've had some great clubs, including the 1989 and '90 City Championship team, the 1993 and '94 section title teams and the title teams of earlier this decade. The wing-T master Miners open at home against Ponderosa on Sept. 11, a great test.
4. Pleasant Grove (11-3)
The Eagles of Elk Grove beat Laguna Creek in the City Championship after downing a terrifically talented Nevada Union bunch in a semi-final despite a rash of injuries. It was a testament to the program coach Joe Cattolico has built. QB Taylor Congdon, out for the playoffs last fall due to injury, is back, and he's as fast and dangerous as anyone at that position in the region. Versatile WR Jalen Saunders - bound for Fresno State - had a terrific summer camp showing (he also played QB in the playoffs). The defense is headed by Darius Powe-Reed. One of the promising young players is sophomore lineman Arik Armstead, already offered a scholarship by UCLA. This isn't a new school any more. It's fully arrived. The Eagles open at home against Lincoln-Stockton on Sept. 11.
5. Granite Bay (9-2)
The Grizzlies are always good to great. Nothing less. It's a given, and it's a credit to coach Ernie Cooper, fast becoming one of the great leaders in this region. Remember, Granite Bay gave Grant its toughest game all of last season, an assessment Pacers coach Mike Alberghini agrees with. A ton of seniors departed Granite Bay, giving way to a ton of new eager seniors. Cooper has a varsity crew of 85 players, making for intense practices and incredible depth and new wrinkles to explore on offense, including unleashing tailback Devaunte Bolton and defenders Mike Wade and Andrew Knapp. Early test right away in Bay Area power Pittsburg on Sept. 13, then it's Burbank. We'll see right away how Granite Bay, all about toughness and discipline, handles superb athletes.
6. Del Oro (4-6)
It was an off year for what has been a decidedly up program under coach Casey Taylor this decade. The Golden Eagles of Loomis have a lot of star power returning, including RB Bryce Pratt, who scored 19 times a year ago as a classic power runner, and WR Spencer Butterfield, one of the top athletes in the state, regardless of sport. He was the best player for a playoff basketball team a year ago. All told, 12 starters are back, and the JV team went 8-2. Del Oro also returns some key defenders, which is good considering the Sierra Foothill League will be a bruising affair again, including Granite Bay, Roseville, Rocklin and Oakmont, among others. The Golden Eagles open against California of San Ramon, seeking the program's fifth SFL title since 2006.
7. Lincoln-Stockton (10-2)
The Trojans annually give St. Mary's a battle, including a 32-31 loss last season. And the Trojans have won the SJAA title six times this decade. Lincoln has skill players galore, including RB Philip Ruhl, WR Jamal Campbell and WR Brandon Cooks. New coach Brian Gray takes over for Jim Rubiales, with defense a strength, anchored by DL Roderick Townsend. Opener at Pleasant Grove will be telling.
8. Ponderosa (7-3)
The Bruins of Shingle Springs did not want last season to end. They belted rival - and Sierra Valley Conference champion - Oak Ridge 61-35 - in a regular-season finale in the most ridiculous rout of a league champion as any of us can remember. And this is the last team to beat Grant, in the 2007 playoffs, so motivation and anxiety are a big part of the scheme for coach Jason Tenner, who has done terrific work in his short tenure in getting the Bruins right back to that feel-good championship level from the late 1970s and early '80s under famed coach Travis Hatcher. One of Tenner's easiest tasks is having RB Lyndell Scarr take handoffs. He torched Oak Ridge for more than 450 yards and eight scores in one of the most outrageous single-game showings in state history. Leading the way is Connor Rains, all 6-6, 290 pounds of him. Ponderosa returns 10 starters and has an infusion of talent from a 9-1 JV team. It opens against athletic Berkeley on Saturday.
9. Napa (10-2)
Troy Mott has the Indians in cruise control in recent years, including a section title in 2007 and a 10-2 showing last season. Charles Boyett returns at QB after rushing for 988 yards, and he has talented tailback Logan Hess as well (1,408 yards, 20 touchdowns). LB Juan Martinez leads a revamped defense. Should win the Monticello Empire League again. Napa opens at home against very dangerous and vastly improved Vista del Lago of Folsom on Sept. 11.
10. Central Catholic (11-2)
Don't scoff at the size of the school. This is every bit a small-school super power, where the Raiders of Modesto play larger powers in nonleague games and generally prevail, including downing St. Mary's last season. Ten starters return, and there are newcomer talents from yet another 10-0 JV team for coach Roger Canepa. The leader is QB Dylan Swartz, rated the No. 5 senior QB in Northern California by NorCalPreps. The Raiders open with a classic against longtime state power Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa.