Part 1: Cal-Hi Sports Preseason 50

Running backs Dasmond Tautalatasi and Tiapepe Vitale were standout underclassmen last season for CIF Open Division championship team. Mark Tennis/ESPNHS

We won’t bother with a corny countdown because we’d have to be clueless not to have De La Salle, Santa Margarita and Vista Murrieta as the state’s top three to start the 2012 football season.

If you’re in the business of covering high school football, like we have done at Cal-Hi Sports for almost 35 years, preseason rankings are a necessity and they are fun to do.

With CIF state and regional bowl games this season, though, and with more and more top teams seeking each other out in early-season matchups, the preseason rankings don’t actually mean that much. Still, if you’re going to do them, they should make sense.

Our philosophy is that these rankings are more of a starting point to the season than some sort of bold prediction. More and more people who do them, however, seem to favor preseason rankings as predictive and believe that what has happened in the past has no value.

This is the main reason why the preseason state rankings we are releasing this week are going to go against what seems to be all of the preseason national rankings and will have De La Salle of Concord at No. 1 and Santa Margarita of Rancho Santa Margarita at No. 2.

Here are the first three teams in the Cal-Hi Sports preseason overall state football rankings (listed with last year’s win-loss record and coach’s record if available):


Three-time CIF Open Division defending state champion

Head Coach: Bob Ladouceur (384-24-3 all at De La Salle)

First Game: Friday, Aug. 31 at Bellarmine (San Jose). The Bells lost to De La Salle in two overtimes in last year’s season-opener in Concord.

Why This Ranking: Sure, Santa Margarita might be able to beat De La Salle this season if the two were to both get into the CIF Open Division bowl game. But it’s also obvious that anybody who actually watched last year’s bowl games – shoot, the last three – knows how strange it seems to rank any other California school ahead of De La Salle at this time. The Spartans have outscored their last three SoCal bowl opponents (all unbeaten at the time) by a combined 110-8 in the last 10 quarters of the open division games. This includes a 21-0 run against Crenshaw of Los Angeles in 2009 after trailing 14-7, a 48-8 shellacking of Anaheim Servite two years ago, and last year’s 35-0 shutout of a Westlake Village Westlake team that was averaging nearly 50 points per game. Plus, De La Salle has only lost one game to a California team in five years. If DLS had very few returning starters, it might make sense to put another team in the state higher. But that’s not the case here. The defense could in fact be even better than in 2011 and the offense has always found ways to score.

Key Players: Linebacker Michael Hutchings, headed for USC and an ESPN 150 member, should replace Mr. Football State Player of the Year finalist Michael Barton as the ringleader of the defense. Several other stellar returnees on defense include defensive end Austin Hooper, linebackers D.J. Moffett and Victor Egu and junior tackle Sumner Houston. On offense, quarterback Bart Houston is gone (now at Wisconsin), but the running game should be as good as ever with top ball carriers Tiapepe Vitale and Dasmond Tautalatasi all ready to go. The upcoming group of younger players also shows no signs that the legendary program is going to suffer a drop any time soon.


Defending CIF Division I & CIFSS Pac-Five Division champion

Head coach: Harry Welch (244-52-2 including years at Canyon of Canyon Country and St. Margaret’s of SJ Capistrano)

First Game: Saturday, Aug. 25 vs. Brophy Prep (Phoenix, Ariz.) 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Brophy went 12-1 last season and is regarded by many as the preseason No. 1 team in Arizona.

Why This Ranking: Well, if you are going to put De La Salle higher in the state for reasons explained above, it’s a no brainer that the Eagles have to be No. 2. We also pay no attention to USA TODAY, Rivals or any other preseason national rankings that have SM higher. Over the years, we never have, and in most cases when a Cal-Hi Sports and USA TODAY ranking have been different the team we rank higher has won in head-to-head matchups. Santa Margarita is ranked so high by so many because nine starters are back on offense and five more return on defense. This was a team in 2011 thought to be perhaps a year away from being a CIF bowl game contender, but winning the CIF Southern Pac-Five Division title and then the CIF Division I state bowl game showed how quickly the young core came together and believed in how well they could play.

Key Players: Quarterback Johnny Stanton (committed to Nebraska) cemented his status as one of the top players nationally at his position by gaining Elite 11 status recently at the Elite 11 quarterback camp in Redondo Beach. Stanton, who inspires Tim Tebow comparisons due to his size and running ability, will be operating this season behind a massive and powerful offensive line, led by Riley Sorenson (6-4, 320) and Dane Crane (6-3, 300). Leading rusher Ryan Wolpin and leading receiver River Cracraft also are back. The question for the Eagles is on defense since Bellarmine of San Jose seemed to drive the field against them repeatedly in the bowl game. That’s also the unit that must replace three defensive linemen and two linebackers. One plus on defense is the return of All-CIFSS pick Connor O’Brien in the secondary.

3. VISTA MURRIETA (MURRIETA) 14-0 (9-5 incl. forfeits)

Defending CIF Southern Section Inland Division champion

Head coach: Coley Candaele (136-39-2 including years at Carpinteria)

First Game: Friday, Aug. 31 vs. ThunderRidge (Highlands Ranch, Colo.). The team’s second game is against an out of state foe as well, which will be at home against South (Anchorage, Alaska). Neither foe should provide too tough of a test.

Why This Ranking: The Broncos return the 2011 State Junior of the Year and arguably the best player in Southern California from last season in multi-position talent Su’a Cravens. Having quarterback Nick Stevens back as well means that it would make no sense to start with any other team at the top of the very strong CIFSS Inland Division. Plus, after last year’s team didn’t get the nod for a CIF state bowl game, the motivation should be strong to repeat in the division and then make it very easy to get one of four CIF regional bowl berths in either Division I or the Open Division.

Key Players: While the USC-bound Cravens gets all of the recruiting attention and deservedly so, Stevens’ leadership on the offensive side of the ball could be just as important a factor for Vista Murrieta’s probable success this season. He scored the winning touchdown on a 30-yard run with 26 seconds left in last year’s Inland Division title game against Corona Centennial. Stevens will be complemented this season by transfer running back Kishawn Holmes, who earned All-CIFSS honors last season at Hemet West Valley. Five starters also are back on defense, led by linebacker Bryce Smith, who is another returning All-CIFSS selection. Tustin transfers Treshon Broughton, a defensive back, and Greg Hoyd, a junior tight end/defensive end, could be players to watch as well.

Note: Check back for additional Cal-Hi Sports preseason rankings over the next week, including outlooks for each CIF regional bowl game division in the north and south. If you check back and do not see Cal-Hi Sports content, go to our twitter page @CalHiSports or go to our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/CalHiSportscom/162897664162 for updates. For corrections or comments, email Mark.Tennis@espn.com or markjtennis@gmail.com.