Last year was the first time that Amador Valley and Foothill failed to advance to the North Coast Section football playoffs in the last 25 years, but both teams will enter the East Bay Athletic League season with high hopes of returning to the playoffs this season.
The big news in the EBAL football world this year is that De La Salle will be competing as an independent. The Spartans will get the automatic bid to the NCS playoffs for the league and their players will be eligible for all-EBAL awards, but the remaining seven teams will be playing for the EBAL title and the championship banner that comes along with the honor.
The Dons will be led by quarterback Kyle Moreno, who will be starting for the third straight year.
Moreno, who is heading to Brown University, can air it out with the best of them in the league.
"He has continued to improve physically," said Amador coach Rick Sira. "But he has also improved mentally with his reads and things like that. When you are a third-year starter you are supposed to get better and it has been that way for him."
Moreno has a talented lot of receivers to throw to in Grant Miller, Justin Cruz, Kyle Greenan and Collin Miller (no relation to Grant).
On the ground, running back Sam Peters is the go-to guy, but as always, expect the Dons to come at defensive units with a multitude of runners including new varsity players such as Jim Ferrara and Michael White.
The offensive line will be paced by a pair of seniors in Nate Vickers and Jesse Cerdas. Joining the duo will be Mitchell Mayo (recovering from a broken ankle) and Travis Chubb.
Most of the offensive players will also be making an impact on defense and will be joined by a number of ball-hawking teammates.
Senior Dominic Ashley has been working hard at one inside linebacker, as has corner Parker Newman, a junior who has been playing well. Sira also had high praise for outside linebacker junior Kevan Knaggs.
"We have great senior leadership," said Sira. "They are great players, but also great kids. If you are a knucklehead you are out of place on this team."
That is a much-needed attitude in the always loaded EBAL, where each week brings another big game.
"I say the same thing every year," said Sira. "It's great to be in the EBAL, but it's a bad thing to be in the EBAL. There are no easy games by a long shot."
Coach Matt Sweeney has never been one to throw around hyperbole so when he makes a dramatic statement, there is no reason to doubt what Sweeney said.
And when Sweeney says his group of skilled players is the best he has ever had at Foothill in his 26 years of coaching, you better believe it is a talented group.
"In terms of the running backs, wideouts and tight ends, this group of guys has no weakness," said Sweeney, straight to the point.
Leading the group is a pair of three-year starters for the Falcons in Ray Hudson and Griffith Gates. Both have been factors in the Foothill offense and defense for two seasons and have lived up to expectations across the board.
"The game moves slow for them right now," said Sweeney of Hudson and Gates. "They both have worked so hard to get bigger and stronger."
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Hudson will be moving on to Cal next year as a tight end. This year he is going to be a wideout for the Falcons and that means mismatches every time they line up.
"They are going to have to double him," said Sweeney.
Gates is 6-3, 235 pounds and will be one of the two main running backs for the Falcons. Along with Gates, junior Jamirr Holland -- one of the top all-around athletes in the league -- will give the Falcons a power and speed combo.
Isaiah Langley, only a sophomore, is a breakaway type receiver, as is fellow sophomore Darrell Adams, who also checks in at 6-4. Tight end Jack Finney will be among the elite in the league at the position. Tommy Gamble will also be a threat out of the backfield. Ryan Anderson figures to catch his share of passes at one of the wideout spots.
Sophomore Kyle Kearns has been the pick for quarterback by Sweeney. The 6-1, 175 pound Kearns throws a nice ball and earned the spot with a solid summer passing league season.
On the line, the Falcons will be looking to Collin Dal Porto, Will Theofanopolous, Perry Cheney, Erik Gallagher and James McGee.
The Foothill defense will also be a solid starting group with Gates, Hudson and Holland leading the way. Langley, Dal Porto, McGee, Adams and Finney all also figure to be key players.
Trent Morgan (LB/DL), Trevor Maes (FS), Parker Dalton (LB), Marc Luey (LB), Zach Wilhite and Cody Shields (LB) are also all in the mix for starting positions on the Foothill defense.
Other fall sports
Football is not the only sport in the fall: There are several others where the EBAL is among the elite leagues in Northern California. Due to the early start of the school year in conjunction with the late practice start for some sports, not all fall sports are being previewed.
We hope to catch up with the rest as the season goes on, including girls tennis and boys and girls waterpolo. Here are brief previews of volleyball, cross country and girls golf.
There are a lot of reasons for Amador's coach Rich Cortez to be fired up for the season. But the long-time coach knows anything can happen as the season unfolds.
"My whole thing is, ask me in December," said Cortez about the end of the season. "We will be competitive if we pass the ball around."
Leading the way for the Dons is a familiar volleyball name in the Valley in Kris Dunworth. The younger sister of former Amador and Duke University star Sophia, Dunworth is an outstanding setter, but also a talented hitter.
"We are expecting a big year out of Kris," said Cortez of the Cornell-bound senior.
Joining Dunworth as a leader for the team will be senior middle blocker Bri Day and outside hitter Marisol Tracy.
"(Marisol) should be one of the top hitters in the league," said Cortez.
One pleasant surprise for Cortez and his staff has been the play of junior Emani Jackson. After sitting out her freshman year with a back injury, Jackson spent last season on the JV team learning the game. This year she has come to play.
"She really has been a surprise," said Cortez. "She keeps getting better and better."
Also figuring to play a key role will be Rosie Boulden. Boulden usually lines up as an opposite, but can also set, allowing Dunworth to move into a hitting spot. Amber Wright is an outside hitter and a middle blocker who adds to the Amador front line.
Last year the Falcons advanced all the way to the NCS final before falling to San Ramon Valley. There certainly were some losses to graduation, but the cupboards are hardly bare.
Returning all-league players Amanda Tuazon and Jen Corbin both are back to give Foothill a strong base. Tuazon was a second team all-league setter, while Corbin was honorable mention as an outside hitter.
"Those two are seniors and we are certainly counting to help us a lot," said Foothill coach Dusty Collins.
Collins also named fellow seniors Brooke Campbell and Jasmine Ballesteros as keys to the Falcons hopes.
Junior Hannah Williams was on the varsity as a sophomore last year and Collins is looking for big things from her as well.
"We've had two great seasons in a row," said Collins. "We did lose a lot, but we have a lot back as well. There are always some really good teams in the EBAL."
The Dons are coming off a season where both the boys and girls teams qualified for the CIF State Meet at the Division I level. Coached by former Amador star runner Jason Oswalt, both appear primed to make the move toward state again.
On the boys side Connor McCarthy leads the close knit group of runners. Right behind McCarthy is Jacob Schlachte, Kevin Huey, Conner McKinnon, Peter Schlachte, Dan Arthur and Zach Beston.
Heading into the EBAL season, De La Salle looks to be the team to beat, with the Dons and the always tough San Ramon Valley team right there behind the Spartans.
The girls' team was hit harder by graduation than the boys, but seems to be reloading instead of rebuilding.
Jena Pianin returns after finishing fifth in the state last year leading the way and will be complemented by freshman Annaka Green. Green comes into the high school season after finishing fifth in the 1,500 nationals this summer.
Nina Razavi and Stephanie Duret are both talented runners who will need to step up for the Dons this season. The rest of the team is still to be determined from a deep, but inexperienced group of runners.
The Falcons come into the season with a group of hard-working runners.
"This is a great, dedicated group of kids that worked hard over the summer," said Coach Shannon Sos. "They worked hard and wanted to improve."
Sos lists his top four runners for the boys as Andrew Goard, Owen Coumu, Ryan McDonald and Amar Jyothiprakash. On the girls' side, Annie Geasa, Madeline Taylor, Kyra Schwaninger and Melissa West all return to lead the way. It is a solid core group that is being joined by a host of new runners.
"We've had a good influx of freshmen and sophomores to the teams," said Sos.
A trio of talented golfers is returning to lead a team that figures to have plenty of depth.
Kelly Shotwell is the team captain and is in her fourth year for the Amador varsity. Shotwell recently won the Castlewood Junior championships. Kimberly Liu is also one of the captains and last year as a sophomore had the lowest average score during the EBAL matches.
Sabrina Bodnar is only a sophomore, but brings a lot of talent to the party after finishing as the medalist in a few matches last year. Yehna Kim (So.), Caroline Lilja (Jr.), Emily Lin (Fr.), Kayli Lujan (So.), Heather McKenzie (Jr.), and Meghna Sinha (So.) are the rest of the top players for the Dons.
The Falcons should be among the elite in the league again paced by Alex and Katie Sborov, a pair of senior sisters. The twins both qualified this summer to participate in the 2012 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship. Alex Sborov has been awarded a golf scholarship to Texas Christian University starting in 2013; Katie has been offered golf scholarships but has not made a final decision.