1. BISHOP AMAT
Strengths: A well-rounded coaching staff starting with head coach Steve Hagerty, who led the Lancers to the Serra League co-title and a quarterfinal appearance in the 2009 Pac-5 playoffs. Junior quarterback Rio Ruiz is an upgrade over last year, and the Lancers add Glendora transfer Wallace Gonzalez, a highly regarded 6-foot-5 wideout. With a solid running-back corp and depth galore, all signs are go for the boys in blue.
Obstacles: Must overcome the loss of Davis Cazares, Daniel Kane and Darien Johnson on a bend-but-don’t-break defense that allowed 19 points a game last season.
Outlook: With a winnable preseason that includes Garfield, Dominguez, Muir, Damien, Cathedral and Venice, the Lancers could be 6-0 when the Serra begins. Getting it done in the Serra and Pac-5, however, will be difficult again, even for a team as talented as this.
2. CHARTER OAK
Strengths: Another great coaching staff and key returners back after securing its second consecutive CIF-Southern Section Southeast Division title. Senior wide receiver Dennis Rufus is a big-time college recruit, along with sturdy junior quarterback Travis Santiago. With linemen Andy Orozco and Charlie Avila, the Chargers should pick up where they left off.
Obstacles: After dominating the Miramonte League, the Chargers step up to the uncertainty of the Sierra League and the Central Division, where there’s more depth and playmakers to deal with.
Outlook: Many felt last year’s team could have competed for a Central Division title, but this isn’t last year’s team. The Chargers are still solid, but they’re not automatic favorites anymore.
3. CHINO HILLS
Strengths: The defending Sierra League champions return player of the year Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the secondary and running back Nate Harris, and finished a summer that included winning the 30-team Bonita Air Assault passing tournament and winning the Santa Fe lineman tournament of champions.
Obstacles: A tough preseason that includes Tesoro and Redlands East Valley, and a tougher-than-usual Sierra League with Charter Oak and South Hills joining. Even the race for a playoff spot is no guarantee.
Outlook: Scary, considering how well they did in the summer. When you factor in their playmakers, size on offense and defense, and the fact they’re the defending league champions, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be in the hunt for a second consecutive league title.
Strengths: Owns the area’s best quarterback in years, and maybe the best of the decade, in senior Chad Jeffries. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder gave a verbal commitment to San Diego State after weighing several offers. He’s a run and pass threat who threw for 1,692 yards and rushed for 657. With a usually reliable defense and depth, this should be an explosive team and fun to watch.
Obstacles: No doubt moving back to the Baseline League with Los Osos, Rancho Cucamonga, Upland and Etiwanda provides challenges and long road trips. Plus, competing in the Inland Division is a step up for a school that struggled in the Central.
Outlook: A brutal preseason and league schedule will make it tough to win seven or more, and there’s no playoff guarantee despite the Tartans’ success under coach Mark Pasquarella in recent years.
5. SOUTH HILLS
Strengths: The Huskies don’t have the depth of the top four, but they have solid impact players in junior running back Jamel Hart, junior quarterback Vincent Hernandez and key linemen like Peter Nonu and Sioasi Aiono. Hernandez is the key; if he’s able to give the Huskies a consistent run and pass threat, they’re going to be formidable because their defense is as solid as always.
Obstacles: Not as dominant as they were earlier this decade and have flamed out in back-to-back years in the Southeast Division semifinals, losing each time to Diamond Ranch. Now the Huskies get bumped up to the Sierra, where fighting for a playoff spot will be as difficult as fighting for a league title in the San Antonio.
Outlook: Figuring Charter Oak and Chino Hills are the league favorites, the Huskies will be fighting for the third playoff spot with Ayala, Damien and Claremont — no easy task.
6. WEST COVINA
Strengths: Quarterback George Johnson isn’t flashy, but he will be a third-year starter for coach Mike Maggiore to go with an explosive running game led by junior Chris Solomon and versatile senior Maurice Dupleasis. Add to that another running back/defensive back in BJ Lee, who became one of the top sprinters in the Southland, and there’s no reason to believe West Covina won’t be favored in the new Hacienda League.
Obstacles: Always plays a tough nonleague schedule and this year is no different, with games against L.A. City power Venice to go with contests against Glendora and crosstown rival South Hills. At least they dropped the likes of Mater Dei and Bishop Amat.
Outlook: With the departure of two-time Southeast Division champion Charter Oak, many believe that West Covina is the division front-runner and Hacienda League favorite. We agree.
7. SAN DIMAS
Strengths: The two-time Valle Vista League champ and reigning Mid-Valley Division title holder returns a solid core that includes quarterback Shawn Kennedy to go with backs Jordan Taylor and Dillon Corona and durable linemen in Allen Brown and Alec Zenner. And with the wizard of the Wing T in coach Bill Zernickow, the monsters of the Mid-Valley continue to grow.
Obstacles: Taking on its toughest nonleague schedule in years by scheduling Rancho Cucamonga and last year’s finalist Monrovia. Even the Valle Vista will be no guarantee with surging Baldwin Park and newcomer Wilson.
Outlook: The favorites to win back-to-back Mid-Valley titles, but they must go through several challengers including Monrovia, Rosemead, Arroyo, Baldwin Park and Azusa.
8. DIAMOND RANCH
Strengths: The Panthers always have impact players and this year is no different, with Aaron Almond (DB/RB), Jacoby Carter (CB/RB), Chase Price (RB/LB) and quarterback Cesar Carillo, who will take over for Gus Viramontes, who led the Panthers to back-to-back Southeast Division title games.
Obstacles: Not as strong on the offensive and defensive lines, and a tough Week 1 opponent in Pac-5 powerhouse Santa Margarita, which is not a good sign for a traditionally slow-starting team that always plays a tough nonleague schedule, though it’s not as tough as in years past.
Outlook: Won’t have to face two-time Southeast champion Charter Oak now that the Chargers are in the Sierra and the Panthers are in the newly formed Hacienda League. That doesn’t mean the Panthers will finally win their first CIF title, but it sure does make it easier.
Strengths: When last healthy, quarterback Michael Ball was leading the Raiders to the Southeast Division semifinals before losing to eventual champion Charter Oak. That was his sophomore year, and now the prolific run/pass threat is a senior after breaking his collarbone midway through his junior season. Safe to assume that as Ball goes, so go the Raiders.
Obstacles: Not as much size or depth as the teams above, and will find it hard competing in a league that includes West Covina, Diamond Ranch and Diamond Bar. Even without Ball, the Raiders averaged 34 points last season, but must do better defensively after allowing an average of 21 points a game.
Outlook: Will be no surprise if the Raiders win the Hacienda League or compete for a Southeast Division title. Ball is that good and coach Craig Snyder is that competitive. Whether they have enough horses remains to be seen.
Strengths: It starts at the top with head coach Joe Scherf, who in two years has led a school revival, going 21-4 which includes with back-to-back Montview League titles and a quarterfinal and semifinal appearance in the Mid-Valley Division playoffs. Plus, the Aztecs return several key players from last year’s team and have added much-needed depth.
Obstacles: Playing its toughest nonleague schedule during Scherf’s tenure, and will have the bull’s-eye on its back more than ever. Plus, the Montview League continues to improve, with La Puente, Gladstone, Workman and Sierra Vista looking stronger.
Outlook: With running back Steven Blount, quarterback Jose Nunez and all-everything lineman Edwin Garcia, a third consecutive Montview League title is almost a certainty.