The race is on, and the collective South Sequoia League football coaches know it.

How quickly can this year’s group of underclassmen — and there’s a lot of them — mature and gain the necessary experience to perform at a high level.

Last year, that meant reaching pretty high standards. The Central Section Division V champion and runner-up, and a D-IV semifinalist all came out of the SSL.

Wasco appears to have a head start this season, and plenty of confidence.

“I think we’ll compete for a league title and a Valley title, if I’m being honest,” said second-year Wasco coach Chad Martinez, whose team relied heavily last year on several sophomores, a class that made key contributions in their 20-7 upset of No. 1 Porterville in the D-IV quarterfinals.

“We had a lot of guys that were really young at certain sports. Both our running backs were sophomores last year. That’s gonna be a nice 1-2 punch. It’s gonna be good all-around for us, so I think we’ll be very, very competitive, if not dominating.”

At just 5-foot-8 and 147 pounds, Christian Alvarez was hard to stop as a sophomore, rushing for 1,666 yards and 18 touchdowns. His classmate, 5-7, 140-pound Elias Salinas compiled 813 yards and 11 scores on the ground.

“It’s another full year for me to be able to get my vision to those guys,” Martinez said “They trust me more, and it’s just been building to a very, very high note. The players are super excited, especially how we finished last year. It didn’t end how we wanted it to, but that excitement carried over to the offseason. That excitement is definitely bringing people to our program and making the guys work extra hard.”

If the Tigers can match the success of last year’s elite SSL teams, they will have achieved something truly special.

Kennedy finished second in the SSL, but turned things up a notch in the playoffs. The Thunderbirds finished 13-2 after defeating Shafter 30-28 in the D-V final to earn a state playoff game, a 42-10 loss to Los Angeles-Garfield.

“Going as far as we did last year was a great experience for the kids that are returning,” said second-year Kennedy coach Mario Millan, who will rely on senior quarterback Jose Cota, who played in eight games last year. “But there’s not a lot of them. On defense we’re going to bring back six guys, but on offense we obviously lost a lot of our speed guys. So that’s a big rebuilding group. So we expect our defense to hold things together as long as we can.”

Kennedy’s biggest loss is Tyreak Walker, who rushed for 2,219 yards and 30 touchdowns last year. Fellow senior Yoncanni Sandoval had 1,288 yards and 20 TDs on the ground.

“Our seniors were freshmen league champs, JV league champs and last year they were Valley champs, so there’s a good little winning pedigree built in there,” Millan said. “But this group is more of a blue-collar group where last year’s group was more flashy. We have to be more methodical and they’re kind of built that way. It will be different for sure.

"We’ve just been very fortunate these last couple of years, that we had guys that when they broke open, they were gone. These guys (this year), if they break open, they’re going to be 20, 25, 30-yard guys and then get tackled. We’re going to have do what everyone talks about and earn our keep.”

Shafter won the league last year and took a 12-0 record into the D-V title game on the strength of several seniors, most notably quarterback Alex Aguilar. Aguilar’s statistics were off the charts. He threw for 3,436 yards and 44 touchdowns, with just six interceptions. He rushed for 1,178 yards and 20 scores. Defensively, he had 66 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Needless to say, he will be hard to replace.

“It’s more of a retool than a reloading I’d call it,” said Shafter coach Jerald Pierucci, who has just nine seniors on this year’s squad. “When you graduate the seniors that we graduated last year, our offense and our defense is really centered around our strengths. And this year with the team that we have, we don’t have an Alex Aguilar as a quarterback that can turn nothing into something. We have to be a little more methodical in what we do.”

The Generals may not have a lot of experience, but the returning players they do have, have plenty of talent.

Jackson Sanchez heads that list, although he is still recovering from a broken foot suffered early in the summer. The 6-foot, 175-pound receiver caught 77 passes for 1,351 yards and 16 TDs last year. Fellow senior Felix Chacon figures to be the team’s top receiver until Jackson returns around Week 3 or 4, according to Pierucci.

“We’re going to be really young, but the nice thing is that all of our kids have been through our system,” said Pierucci, who expects sophomore Tyson Dozhier to start at quarterback. “So it’s not like we’re re-teaching and stuff like that. We’re kind of just able to move along. The kids that played JV, they ran the same basic terminology, but we might run a little bit more complicated of a system. We’re doing OK right now.”

Fourth-year Chavez coach Jesse Ortega expects his team to be improved, on the heels of a 3-8 season, 2-4 in the SSL.

“I know that our strength is our experience. We aren’t quite there, because we still have a handful of underclassmen that are making up the core of our varsity team who played as sophomores last year, but I think our experience is one of our strengths to a degree,” said Ortega, who will rely on junior quarterback Cameron Huerta, who threw for 707 yards and seven TDs last year. “They’ve all come together to understand that we’re all working toward the same thing. It’s about teammates, it’s about unity, so I think we can make a real run in the playoffs. How deep, just depends on how things go, you know referee calls, turnovers, injuries, even our seed when we get to the playoffs could be a factor. We’re just going to go out there and have the confidence and the desire to take one game at a time and win.”

Taft, Arvin and McFarland figure to have some challenges as their young squads gain the needed experience.

“Well the biggest concern is we lost 28 seniors to graduation last year,” said Edgar Mares, entering his 19th season as Arvin coach. “And we’re going to be young and numbers wise we have about 25 kids out right now. We’re hoping to get a few more. So we’re not going to be very big as far as our numbers go, and our size, we’re quite a bit smaller than we were last year, so all those things combined we have our work cut out ahead of us.”

Taft has just 10 seniors, but fifth-year head coach George Falgout expects to be competitive.

“I’m looking forward to a good season,” said Falgout, whose team was 2-8 overall, 0-6 in SSL play last year. “I mean, we’re young, but we have a good group of juniors, as well as some sophomores. We’ve got some young, good athletes.”

Perhaps the best is 6-2, 220-pound sophomore Bryce Veach, who placed fourth in an elite lineman camp during the summer.

McFarland expects to be improved with the return of a healthy Julian Avila, a senior who missed the first five games of the season last year after transferring from Chavez. Once he became eligible, he battled an ankle injury for the Cougars (5-6, 1-5 SSL).

“I think this year, we can actually start our program,” Third-year McFarland coach Casey Quinn said. “We have a pretty good, strong foundation, to really begin our program and do the right thing. First and foremost, our kids are high-character kids. They understand their routines, and the importance of training, and doing stuff during the offseason.

“I have talented backups in key sports, I have some new guys that should be all right. So I feel like we have a football team that can play on Friday night and put a product on the field that can be competitive.”

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