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Football: No. 3 Mission Viejo

Any of the top three teams in these preseason rankings could have been No. 1.

On the surface, Mission Viejo might be the best of the lot with a returning quarterback in Alex Bridgford and the return of a strong running game that includes Jahleel Pinner that is made stronger by the arrival of senior transfer Buzzy Yokoyama from Newport Harbor. They'll be running behind a strong offensive line, and a formidable defense will be there to complement the effort.

Yet in the last two seasons, they have been undone by Servite in the Southern Section Pac-5 semifinals in 2009, and the finals in 2010. What do they need to do to get over the hump?

"We're not going to change a thing," said Bob Johnson, who has a 267-89-1 record in 26 seasons of coaching, including 126-16-1 at Mission Viejo. "If we get to the finals again, no excuses. They beat us both years. We'll come back and try again."

Here is a closer look at the Diablos:

Coach: Bob Johnson, 13th season

2010 Record: 13-1, lost to Servite in the Southern Section Pac-5 championship.

Returning starters: 11 total. Six on offense, five on defense.

Key players on offense: QB Alex Bridgford, OL Austin Maass (San Diego State), RB Jahleel Pinner (USC), OL Colby Cyburt, TE Austin Reuland, C Kevin Carroll.

Key players on defense: LB Ryan Harris, DL Colin Dzubnar, LB Daniel Marks, MLB Wes Hardman, CB Anthony Pierce, FS Max Redfield, SS Doug Ruggles.

Difference maker: Pinner was a handful when he was a sophomore fullback, but now he is a senior who has dropped from 238 pounds to 218 and is stronger and faster. As a tailback, he's going to be tough to bring down. If opponents can't stop the running game, it's game over.

Newcomers: RB/DB Buzzy Yokoyama, a transfer from Newport Harbor.

Not to be missed: Mission Viejo at Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco Prep, Sept. 10. Not only is it an East vs. West matchup, but it’s two of the top programs in the nation. Many have Don Bosco ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the national sentiment regarding Mission is very high, too. A win on the road by the Diablos might have everyone rethinking their rankings.

Coach’s comment: "I like the team. I like it a lot," Johnson said. "I don't know if they have more than one loss in the last three years. I like them. It's always fun to have a quarterback returning. I like everyone around here. We have to stay healthy. A couple of key injuries could be really tough."

Final analysis: Mission Viejo is going to score a lot of points. It has a terrific nonleague schedule; besides Bosco, it plays Long Beach Poly, Carson, La Quinta and Redlands East Valley. There are also two terrific league matchups against San Clemente and Tesoro. But it all comes down to the playoffs. Mission's going to be there, but they haven't been able to make the plays to get past Servite. This might be the year.