The fun is over for the Sierra League.
Now the teams have to play each other.
The depth of the league was on display as it compiled a nonleague record of 19-9 during the first five weeks of the season, leaving only one of six teams with a losing record before league play begins Friday.
Defending champion Covina Charter Oak and a Chino Hills team that won the previous three league titles appear to again be the favorites. But by all accounts, the league is deeper than it was last season, which is no small statement.
Take West Covina South Hills, for example, which didn’t win a single league game in 2011. Prior to league play it beat one eventual CIF champion, lost to another by two points and fell to eventual Mt. Baldy League champion Colony by one point while compiling a 3-2 nonleague record.
Ayala, the team that finished one slot ahead of South Hills last season, may have transformed itself into a league title contender in the offseason. Damien, a playoff team two of the last three years, has more speed now than it has each of those seasons.
“I think this is the best this league has ever been,” Chino Hills coach Derek Bub said. “Top to bottom the league is as deep as I’ve ever seen it.”
It may have been deep last year, but there was a clear champion.
Charter Oak, which finished a disappointing third upon arrival to the league in 2010, was dominant in 2011. The Chargers’ 38-7 win over Chino Hills in the regular-season finale left no doubt who was the league’s best team.
But while Charter Oak graduated all-world quarterback Travis Santiago, Chino Hills was graced with the transfer of quarterback Matt Simko from Colony. The senior, who is the reigning Mt. Baldy League offensive player of the year, already is less than 500 yards from eclipsing his passing yardage total from last season.
Simko, leading an offense averaging a league-best 38 points per game, is the Inland Valley’s leading passer with a completion percentage of 63; 1,454 yards, 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
“He can definitely spin the football,” Bub said. “He has fit in great here and really accepted his role. He didn’t come in here and bully his way into anything.”
The only blemishes on the Huskies’ nonleague schedule are a tie with La Puente Bishop Amat and a 10-point loss to Rancho Santa Margarita Tesoro, the No. 2 team in the Pac-5 Division. By comparison, Charter Oak lost to Bishop Amat, 30-14, Sept 14.
The wait to determine whether Chino Hills or Charter Oak is better will be a short one. The teams meet on Friday.
Ayala and Damien also meet Friday in a game that almost certainly will have playoff implications. Damien has consistently been in the postseason mix the last three years, during which Ayala has combined for three league victories.
Having emerged from a very respectable nonleague schedule with a 4-1 mark, Ayala appears ready to compete for a playoff spot at the very least. Ayala’s athletic defense is just as tenacious as an opportunistic offense led by do-it-all senior Jordan Robinson, part of a class that won the league as freshmen and sophomores.
“That class at Ayala has accomplished a lot and now they’re seniors,” Damien coach Greg Gano said. “Ayala is the real deal. They’re a big part of the reason this league is as good as I’ve seen it since I’ve been here.”
Yet to play a game closer than 16 points, Damien (2-2) remains the league’s biggest mystery. The Spartans have speed outside the hashmarks but are averaging fewer than 200 yards of offense per game. It isn’t his skill players but his young offensive and defensive fronts that concern Gano. Damien’s two losses have come to formidable opponents, but the average margin of defeat was 25.5 points.
After finishing a game behind Damien for the final playoff spot last season, Claremont has a tough road to return to that status this year. The Wolfpack’s two victories have come against teams with a combined record of 2-8. Junior quarterback Craig Myers, however, has been a bright spot with an average of 322 passing yards per game with eight touchdowns and three interceptions.
Chino Hills 5-0
Charter Oak 4-1
South Hills 1-4