MATHESON: Non-conference schedule doesn’t tell much about TCAL

 

After four weeks of football
— although just three games for some teams — it seems not much
has been revealed in the Tri-County Athletic League.
After four weeks of football — although just three games for some teams — it seems not much has been revealed in the Tri-County Athletic League.

A lot of top talent was lost last year, which should only make the playing field a little more even among the seven member schools, at least more so than in recent years, while loaded non-conference schedules for many teams have left early season question marks.

Does anyone truly believe North Salinas is as bad as an 0-3 record might suggest? For the record, the Vikings have lost to Daly City’s Jefferson High, Pioneer and Milpitas by a combined 13 points.

It will be a down year for the TCAL, though, which was expected. The Balers weren’t the only team in the league to lose a boatload of seniors last year.

But that should only provide more balance than in years past.

Prior to the season, I devised a can’t-miss strategy for figuring how the TCAL would shake out: Look at last year’s final standings, look at which players are returning to each team, and then judge accordingly.

I know, I know. I don’t get paid nearly enough.

Anyway, my formula panned out as much: Palma and San Benito at the top, Alisal and Alvarez at the bottom, and North Salinas, Gilroy and Salinas fighting it out in the middle.

After four weeks, I don’t believe much has changed, although the boundaries to those categories have become blurred.

In other words, this season could be a dogfight. Don’t expect every team to finish 3-3, but with Alvarez and Alisal on its way up, Gilroy on its way down, and a lot of development and seasoning taking place among the remaining schools, scores could be a tad tighter this season, especially early on.

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Is it crazy to think Alvarez, which is 0 for its last 24 TCAL games, could actually win a league contest this season? The Eagles went 2-2 through non-conference play and posted 105 points in the process. The team is just 20 points shy of totaling all of last year’s output.

Of course, after four straight winless seasons in the TCAL, it wouldn’t be crazy to see Alvarez go 0-6 again, either. But second-year head coach Ralph Ward appears to have the team moving in the right direction, and the streak will come to an end — on Nov. 12 at Alisal (1-3).

Those middle-of-the-pack teams are where the TCAL will get interesting, though. It’s a down year in the league, but how everything shakes out will depend on the development of North Salinas (0-3), Gilroy (1-2) and Salinas (1-2-1).

Right now, it’s too early to say much of anything. All three teams lost a lot last season, while the first four weeks haven’t provided much detail: Each team finished non-conference play with a losing record, although their opponents’ combined record was 21-9-2.

While I think Gilroy can surprise anybody in the league with its all-out passing attack — even the Balers, as that rivalry tends to level the playing field — I expect the Mustangs to fully feel the effects of newly opened Christopher High this year.

Two years ago, the year before Christopher opened, Gilroy had a roster of roughly 62 players. Last year, it was down to about 49, while this season it’s around 37.

The fewer the players, the more difficult it becomes competing against the big-school powers. But like I said, Gilroy can surprise anybody, and the super-speedy Julius Travis is quick enough to strike fear into most opponents — he already leads the league with 262 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 receptions.

Speaking of speed, there was almost no way Salinas was going to be able to replace Alvin Jelks (1,705 yards, 20 touchdowns) from a year ago, but returning back Josh Estassi has proven to be a fair replacement.

The senior back already leads the TCAL with 361 yards and three touchdowns on 79 attempts. North Salinas, meanwhile, has a brand new offense with the exception of one — returning quarterback Curt Ceralde, who is averaging more than 20 passing attempts a game this year for the normally run-first, run-second Vikings.

It’s the reason why I’m giving the slight edge to Salinas over crosstown rival North Salinas, although who knows what will happen on Nov. 12 when these two teams meet at The Pit. Comparative scoring through non-conference play favors the Cowboys, but they also return much more than North High.

At the top, I think Palma has solidified itself as the team to beat, despite its youth.

With just 20 seniors cracking the roughly 46-player roster, the Chieftains have still managed to jump out to a 2-0-1 record, and have done so against teams that aren’t slouches — Saint Francis of Mountain View, last year’s Central Coast Section Open Division runner-up; St. Joseph of Santa Maria, which went 12-1 last year and fell one win shy of advancing to the CIF Division III state bowl game; and Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa, the Division II North Coast Section champion of 2008.

Jack Baird already has 80 carries in three games, so Palma will be running the ball, but it’s the defense that is expected to be the difference this season. Through three games, the Chieftains allowed seven points against Saint Francis, seven points against Cardinal Newman, and 19 points against St. Joseph, which is averaging more than 37 points per game through three weeks.

Of course, any and all prognostications will change after Friday night, when Palma will take on Salinas, Gilroy battles North Salinas, and San Benito squares off against Alisal.

TCAL Predicted Finish

Palma 6-0

San Benito 5-1

Salinas 3-3

North Salinas 3-3

Gilroy 2-4

Alvarez 1-5

Alisal 1-5

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