Here are some of the questions -- and answers -- heading into the 2011 football season. It gets under way tonight with a marquee matchup featuring defending Southern Section Pac-5 champion Servite playing at Oceanside, a champion from the San Diego Section. Niiice.
1. Is there any stopping Mission Viejo?
No. The Diablos are going to get theirs. They're going to get their yards and they're going to get their points. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the county in senior Alex Bridgford, and one of the best running backs in Jahleel Pinner. Add to that Newport Harbor transfer Buzzy Yokoyama, and a stout offensive line that includes returners Austin Maass and Colby Cyburt and there's an embarrassment of riches. But that doesn't mean they can't be outscored under the right circumstances. They could still match up against an opponent with a formidable offense that might outscore them, but no one stops them.
2. Can Servite repeat?
Yes. Coach Troy Thomas is worried about two things: Getting into the playoffs, and then taking care of business. The Friars could go winless in the nonleague portion of the season and it wouldn't matter (much) to him. All he's concerned about is winning three Trinity League games to get a playoff berth, then running the table in the playoffs. A third consecutive Pac-5 championship would put the Friars in rare company: In the last 50 years, only Long Beach Poly has won three consecutive major division championships, and one of those was shared because of a tie. Even though the division may be tougher than ever, the Friars are still the team to beat until someone actually beats them. Cody Pittman will be stronger at quarterback, and last year he was about as efficient as they come: he completed 65 percent with 16 TDs and only four interceptions. Servite is potentially better on the offensive and defensive lines, even though they graduated a couple of freaks like Troy Niklas and Wyatt Baker. Tailback, Sean DeRosa was the starter last season before he got hurt. They're not afraid of anybody, and they play the game to win by 1 point, not 40. It's a recipe for success—still.
3. Is there a Josh Webb anywhere in the county?
No. Webb's performance for Garden Grove in the Southern Section Southern Division championship was breathtaking. Are there any players like that? Probably not anyone in the Pac-5, but maybe if La Palma Kennedy gets creative with Eli Pleasant, there might be moments. Even then, Webb is a tough act to follow. Check out this video, highlight Nos. 7, 5, 3 and 1. And that's just one game.
4. Who's the preseason favorite for player of the year?
USC-bound Jahleel Pinner of Mission Viejo is the guy. He's in an offense that he doesn't have to carry, but he will get his touches and his touchdowns nevertheless He's built like a brick, stronger than last year and 20 pounds lighter at 218. He's got good hands, a charismatic personality and he's a workhorse. He can run over defenders, and also outrun them. The only thing he can't escape is the attention.
5. How good is JSerra?
Good, but short of beating a couple of Trinity League teams, it's tough to tell. The Lions have an outstanding quarterback in Jake Hall and a dangerous receiver in Jonavaughn Williams. The problem with JSerra traditionally has been depth and it's competing in a really physical league. Without a significant nonleague opponent, JSerra will have to get its signature victory in league. It might happen, but going in, they look like the sixth-place team in the Trinity League even though they could be playoff team almost everywhere else.
6. Which Trinity League teams won't make the playoffs?
There are no guarantees, but the general consensus is that Servite and Santa Margarita should get in. There are questions surrounding Orange Lutheran and Mater Dei; namely, key guys have to step up, which they might. But the thinking is that in its second year under coach Jason Negro, St. John Bosco will break up the Trinity League and squeeze into the playoffs. Bosco is loaded with skill players, including junior running back Davonte Young, who won a league rushing title as a freshman at Irvine but had to sit out last season after transferring. Bosco hasn't proven it can beat these teams yet, but it seems to be just a matter of time; the Braves played OLu, Servite and Santa Margarita to single digits last season, and led Mater Dei in the fourth quarter.
7. What impact will Eric Patton's dismissal have on San Clemente.
It's hard to tell what effect the coach's removal will have once the games begin. The interim coach is athletic director Jon Hamro, who was the team's offensive line coach. There should be a continuity of philosophy. Such incidents can be galvanizing forces, and that has been Hamro's first impression. In 2009, Garden Grove was made stronger after the death of Kevin Telles in the season opener.
8. Which team could be a surprise?
Tesoro beat Santa Margarita last year, and has more returning starters than the Eagles. Everyone is looking at Santa Margarita as one of the section's best -- deservedly so -- but maybe their sights ought to be pointed a little further south on the 241 toll road. We'll find out a lot when they play each other on Sept. 9. But know this: Tesoro beat Bishop Amat in the first round of the playoffs last season, and the Titans return six starters on offense and seven on defense. They have a dual-threat QB in Matt Adam, a running back who's going to get his yards in Nate Tago, and they're going to get a lot better as the season progresses because there are a number of juniors in the starting lineup. Coach Brian Barnes' team might finish third in the South Coast League behind Mission Viejo and San Clemente, but they'll be a tough out in the playoffs.
9. Will John Barnes win 300 games?
Yes, but not this year. Barnes is Orange County's winningest coach with 288 victories in 33 years, most of them at Los Alamitos. He retired from teaching and now is re-energized about football. Barring an upset at the hands of Newport Harbor—which has had pretty good success against the Griffins since joining the league—the defending Sunset League champs should get eight victories, easy. But reaching 12 victories would require Los Alamitos win at least two playoff games to reach 300—and the Griffins haven't won a playoff game since 2004. The last time they won as many as nine games was 2005.
10. Can La Habra make it five in a row?
The Highlanders have scheduled nonleague games against Servite (Sept. 16), Orange Lutheran (Sept. 23) and St. John Bosco (Sept. 29). They aren't backing away from anyone in pre-league games. The Freeway League won't provide much of a challenge, but the lessons learned from the nonleague games should serve them well in the playoffs. Clark Livingston, a senior transfer from Orange Lutheran, was ruled athletically ineligible by the Southern Section office. It will be interesting to see if that's the final word on that issue. If not, then will it be a disruptive force? The program knows how to win; La Habra can definitely repeat as section champion for a fifth consecutive year, but it might not be as easy as it has been in the past.