Central Section high school football kicks off this week throughout the central San Joaquin Valley.
There’s one game Thursday (Dinuba at Porterville), a slew of games Friday (highlighted by Central vs. Edison at Ratcliffe Stadium) and three Clovis schools entertaining out-of-area opponents (Paso Robles at Buchanan and Central Catholic-Modesto vs. Clovis West on Friday and Modesto at Clovis on Saturday).
The California Interscholastic Federation moved up the start of the athletic year one week, making this the earliest kickoff ever for most schools. Section champions in seven divisions will be crowned in November with state championship games in early December.
Also new this year: Two Central Coast leagues join the Central Section.
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Here’s a look at The Bee’s preseason overall Top 10:
1. Central Grizzlies (12-2 in 2017) – The Grizzlies captured their first section title in 82 years after a 29-7 victory over Buchanan in the Division I final at Wayne Koligian Stadium.
Central welcomes back senior quarterback Trent Tompkins, who suffered a broken left hand in summer baseball but is good to go in the opener. Also back: senior wide receiver/defensive back Tyrell Grayson and senior safety Noah Gonzales.
And the Grizzlies have five transfers, including four from Edison: junior offensive lineman Dwight Tatum, senior defensive lineman Ricky Correia, senior wide receiver-defensive back Milton Clements and senior defensive back Thaiger Flowers. Senior running back/linebacker Tre Maxwell is from Roosevelt.
2. Buchanan (10-3) – Five-star recruit Kendall Milton is one of the top-rated junior running backs in the nation and makes the Bears a factor.
Milton is joined by senior wide receiver Jalen Cropper who transfered from Sanger. The roster will also feature junior linebacker Matt Merritt, senior defensive back Brock Jones and senior quarterback Carson Bailey.
3. Bakersfield (6-6) – The Drillers were 5-6 in 2015, 11-3 and section champs (beating Central 21-14 for the title) in 2016 before last year’s bust, but figure to ride the roller-coaster back up this season. Senior defensive backs Cameron Williams and Carl Jones, junior defensive back Isaac Jernagin, senior defensive lineman/linebacker Jacob Zeimet and junior running back/safety Ceyontay Bell are the leaders.
4. Liberty-Bakersfield (6-5) – The Patriots graduated 17 players including eight starters after a 5-0 finish in the Southwest Yosemite League, but welcome back plenty of seniors.
Notable returnees are offensive lineman/defensive lineman Daniel Viveros, defensive tackle Brycen Lindsey, linebacker Anthony Villanueva and senior running back/linebacker Sam Stewart Jr.
Quarterback Hector Gonzales comes in from Redwood and wide receiver Ramon Henderson from Independence.
5. San Joaquin Memorial (11-3) – The Panthers are coming off a D-III title with a 45-31 victory over Tulare Western.
Memorial has a lot of key starters coming back on offense, including quarterback Alec Trujillo, running back Leonard Glass, wide receiver Jalen McMillan and wide receiver/defensive back Josh Kelly.
Junior defensive lineman Tobin Phillips transferred from Clovis North and junior linebacker/running back Ateir Butler comes in from Edison.
6. Clovis West (9-3) – The Golden Eagles lost many key starters on offense and defense but welcome back junior quarterback Dante Chachere who finished the season completing 276 of 440 for 3,462 yards and 22 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He also had 59 carries for 441 yards.
Linebackers Cameron Hicks and Thomas Curran return. Junior wide receiver Dwayne Benjamin is a transfer from San Pedro.
7. Tulare Union (13-1) – Gone are running back Kazmeir Allen and wide receiver Emoryie Edwards, but the Tribe gets back Nathan Lamb who directed the undefeated regular season and 49-21 win over Dinuba for the section D-II title.
Last season, Lamb had 3,810 passing yards to go along with 39 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
The defense is led by Fresno State commit Randy Jordan Jr. who will play cornerback. Also returning are senior safety/linebacker David Dailey and junior linebacker Bear Nunley.
8. Bullard (6-6) – The Knights figure to move behind senior running back Marcus Fulcher (341 carries for 1,780 yards and 18 touchdowns, 13 receptions for 168 yards and two TDs) and rely on a defense led by senior lineman Tommy Slatic.
Three players are vying at quarterback, including Carter Anderson (who played wide receiver last season) and transfers Jaden Pierucci from Shafter and Vincent Andrews from Hoover.
Senior wide receiver/cornerback D’andre Greeley transferred from Edison.
9. Tulare Western (11-2) – Junior quarterback Elijah Burrell gives the Mustangs reason to hope for a step up from D-III runner-up. Also back are junior running back Tairyn Johnson and junior tackle Aaron Tejada.
It’s to be determined if senior wide receiver Keshon Butler, who finished with 1,357 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, will see the field.
10. Clovis (7-5) – The Cougars bring back plenty of experience led by senior defensive back Christian Loera who finished with 12 interceptions last season.
Sophomore defensive lineman Keanu Williams will help anchor the line. In 2017, he finished with 56 tackles and five sacks, and Anthony Aldape led the team with eight sacks.
Junior wide receiver Matt Sanchez returns. He’ll also play free safety, Cougars coach Rich Hammond said. Reef Dove and Grant Lake will join Sanchez as receivers.
The Cougars weren’t set on their quarterback before Friday’s scrimmage with Merced. In the mix are Jake Sanders., Chris Ryland and Bullard transfer Isaiah Robles.