Amador Valley football coach Rick Sira and Foothill coach Matt Sweeney have been coaching at their respective schools for close to a combined 60 years, and there has been one constant throughout.
The East Bay Athletic League (EBAL) is one tough high school football league.
"It is tough every week," Sira said. "Because of that, the level of football continues to increase every year."
"That's the way it has always been," Sweeney said of the difficulty of the EBAL season. "When I started, the standard was Monte Vista up in Danville. Now it is still in that area, but with San Ramon and Cal added as well."
That means there are no "get-well weeks" during the EBAL season, especially this year.
"The league as a whole is up," Sweeney said. "Last year I thought three of our six (EBAL) games were a toss-up. This year, all six could go either way."
Both teams open their regular seasons at home with non-league match-ups tonight. Amador Valley hosts Heritage (Brentwood) and Foothill welcomes San Leandro. The varsity games kick off at 7 p.m.
The Dons lost some very talented offensive linemen from last year's 6-5 team that advanced to the first round of the North Coast Section playoffs.
But a solid group of returning players, being joined by a green but talented junior class, gives Sira and his staff plenty of optimism.
"I think we have a very good group coming back," Sira said. "And we have a very strong group of juniors coming up from the JV team that are already pushing themselves into playing right now."
Leading the charge will be quarterback Ronnie Jones. A senior, Jones will start for the third straight year for the Dons, giving Sira a nice luxury on the offensive side of the ball.
"The kids all look to him as a leader," the coach said of his quarterback. "He is one of the strongest kids on the team and his work ethic is an inspiration to all of the kids."
Being in his third year leading the offense has increased Jones' knowledge of what to do, and Sira will look to capitalize on it this season.
"He will be making more decisions on what play to run this year," Sira explained. "His confidence has continued to grow, as has his decision-making."
Jones has two returners in the backfield with him, Ledre McCollough and Patrick Loughnane. Joining the two at times will be Sean Tomonari, a powerful and excellent blocker.
"We have some very nice runners coming back and all are seniors," Sira said.
On the outside, senior wide receiver Grant Huggins returns. He comes in at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds.
"He's a big physical guy with gigantic hands," Sira said of Huggins.
Matt Mahurin and Hakim Tokhi, a former gymnast in just his second year of playing football, are also expected to contribute at receiver. Sam Adams, in his first year of playing football, had a good summer as a tight end.
The offensive line may have been the area on the team hardest hit by graduation, but the cupboard is hardly bare. Peter Ernst, a 6-3, 230-pound senior, returns after playing well on both sides of the ball last year.
Mason Bartolo (5-10, 225), who started on the defensive line as a sophomore last year, is slated to be the Dons' center this year. Erik Guidice (6-3, 230) worked hard in the offseason and is progressing nicely through early workouts, according to Sira.
Tom Serrano, another senior who saw valuable time on the field toward the end of last season, has been another consistent performer thus far.
The defense will see a lot of offensive starters figure prominently. On the line, Bartolo and Ernst will be joined by senior James Simonds and junior Alex Crepeau (6-2, 230).
The linebacker corps will feature a pair of the talented junior class in Brandon Larson and Tore Wiley. Both were part of a group of six classmates that joined the Dons "1,000 Club," a much respected group that achieved a 1,000-pound weight-lifting mark during the summer. It is the first time Sira can recall he had six underclassmen achieve the distinction.
In the defensive backfield, Huggins is set at safety with Connor Mays earning one of the corner spots.
All in all, it's a talented group of returning players mixed in with some inexperienced players that have shown a lot of potential.
"I think for us the key is our offensive line has to develop," Sira said. "We have to depend on our players coming back. They have to be great players. Our younger guys will develop, but it takes some time."
The obvious question when it comes to Foothill is: How do you replace Kyle Kearns and Isaiah Langley? -- the duo that led the Falcons to a 9-3 mark and a spot in the NCS semifinals last year.
The three-year starters for the Falcons have gone off to Wake Forest and USC, respectively, leaving big shoes to fill at quarterback and receiver/defensive back. Foothill kicker Daniel Rodriguez has also gone to the Division I level, currently kicking at Oregon State.
"You don't replace guys like that," Sweeney said. "I think we have had eight guys go D-I since I have been here and three come off of one team."
At the forefront is figuring out who will take over at quarterback after Kearns.
"Losing the gamesmanship and experience at quarterback is difficult," Sweeney said. "We relied on (Kearns) to make plays for us on third down. Now we will have to rely on others."
For starters, Sweeney can turn to arguably one of the strongest senior classes he has ever had at Foothill to ease the pain.
The foursome of skill players like Cash Connolly, Ruben Mercado, Matt Gates and Isaiah Floyd is a heck of a place to start. Connolly and Floyd are explosive runners, Gates is a force at tight end and Mercado was one of the top receivers in the league last year.
But the question still remains as to who will be given the keys to the offense. Early in camp it has been a contest between senior Josh Merryman and sophomore transfer Ben Wooldridge.
Wooldridge has shown he has all the tools to be one in a great line of successful Foothill quarterbacks, and Merryman is valuable at a number of spots on the field.
The offensive line looks very solid right off the bat.
Three-year varsity starter David Dukleth (6-2, 215) is in at center and is joined by juniors Brennan Gallager (6-0, 195) and Dylan Walsh (5-10, 225). Both started and contributed as sophomores last year. Mike Parisi is also in his third year on varsity as a lineman, but early in the season was not cleared medically to play.
Newcomers senior Nick Brum (5-10, 220) and sophomore Zach Walsh (6-3, 270 and the younger brother of Dylan) could complete one of the top lines in the league.
The defense returns nine starters, led by the same quartet who are now seniors. Mercado at safety, Connolly and Gates at linebacker, and Floyd as a defensive back are among the elite at their positions.
The foursome are joined by other talented returning starters like Blake Braden (LB), Dario Dondero (NG), Dallas Martin (LB), Merryman (DB) and Gallager (DL). Brum and Dukleth both figure to be factors on the defensive line.
There's a lot of positive energy coming from the Foothill camp, but Sweeney knows as well as anyone, talent on paper does not always translate to success on the field.
"Our offensive line and our running backs have to take care of the football," Sweeney said. "We have a lot of good players, but every week is a dog fight. We need to block and tackle to be successful."