1. Redlands East Valley
The Wildcats had an uncharacteristically early exit from the playoffs last year, but they went undefeated in the Citrus Belt League with a junior-dominated team. Fifteen returning starters, many of whom play in the trenches, and depth at the skill positions made the Wildcats my No. 1 pick. How quarterback Austin Decoud matures could make the difference between a short and a long playoff run.
The Highlanders ran into the Corona Centennial freight train in the playoffs last year, but there is a lot coming back to Upland. Wide receiver Kenny Lawler, a soft commit to Arizona State, is the top recruit in the county while running back Donta Abron is also legit. The Highlanders should also be legit on defense, led by defensive end Christian Pwwell, should be salty as well.
I was tempted to put the SkyHawks No. 1, as they return 13 starters from a team that went to the Eastern Division championship game. Only reason I didn’t is because I want to see how the Summit compensates for the loss of Devon Blackmon and Montigo Alford from the offense. That being said, there’s a lot of talent here and this may be the year which Kaiser’s hold on the Sunkist League is broken.
The one team to win a CIF title last year, the Yellowjackets lose a lot of studs from last year’s team, namely RB Tyler Irvin and all-everything LB Devan Hussey. But Colton is well-coached, reloads extremely well and has the size to ram the ball down people’s throats as it loves to do. Colton might not play to this ranking early, but I wouldn’t want to mess with the Yellowjackets come November.
5. Rancho Cucamonga
They may be three spots removed from Upland in these rankings, but the difference between the Cougars and Highlanders is razor thin. Rancho returns a host of starters and contributors from last year’s Inland Division semifinalist. If they can find a workhorse offensively to replace Sateki Finau, they could easily switch spots with Upland in these rankings.
The Cowboys were a failed 2-point conversion away from possibly being a CIF champion last year, as they lost to Colton in a Central Division semifinal classic. The Cowboys actually won the SAL last year and led by WR/DB Damontae Kazee, have the personnel for a repeat. Cajon tends to start slow but come November, I expect this team to be a beast.
7. Chino Hills
The Huskies gave Corona Centennial a better game than anyone else in Southern California could last year, losing to them in a relatively-close semifinal game. They do lose some big-time players in WR/DB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, RB Nate Harris and DE Auston Johnson, but Chino Hills has gotten to a point in its program where it just reloads. Don’t sleep on the Huskies.
The Diamondbacks are one of the most consistent high-achieving programs in the county, as they’ve won 11 Mojave River League championships since 1997 and have been to the semifinals or better the last three seasons. Serrano has a host of RBs and a deep, experienced offensive line. If they can get some typical D-back production out of a young defense, they could be a dark horse CIF title contender.
The Terriers lost a heart-breaker to Redlands East Valley last year in what was a prime opportunity to win their first league title since 2006. Redlands will be younger this year, as the Terriers are depending on a host of juniors, but will be physical and hard-nosed as always. Senior WR/DB/QB Mike Stallone is the player to watch for Redlands. If they can keep him involved, they’ll be dangerous.
It feels weird to put the Cats this low and this is something I could easily regret in a couple of months. But Kaiser was ravaged by graduation after a wonderful 12-1 season last year, losing 18 of 22 starters. The Cats seemed to replace quality with quality and will probably produce another physical, hard-hitting behemoth, but their youth, combined with Summit, puts me in a wait-and-see mode.
As far as teams that barely missed the cut, San Gorgonio was a tough omission. They played as well as anyone in the county last year to finish second in the SAL, but I need to see how Monroe Offield handles things at QB before moving them in. Chino lost quite a bit of talent from its 11-1 season, but returns QB Sean Molles and RB Xavier Browne and looks to be the favorite in the Mt. Baldy League. Etiwanda should be as exciting as ever, with senior QB Larry Cutbirth and senior LB Chandler Scott returning.