Friday Night Lights kick into full gear for Pleasanton high schools with Amador Valley High and Foothill High starting non-league football action tonight.
Amador kicks off the season hosting Washington, with Foothill heading over the hill to play against San Leandro at Burrell Field. Both games are set for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
It appears to be business as usual for both programs.
Foothill features two of the top players in all of the East Bay, while Amador comes into the season as a deep and experienced squad. But in the tough East Bay Athletic League -- one of the top leagues in Northern California -- talent only gets you so far.
"There are no breaks at all," Amador Valley coach Rick Sira said of the EBAL. "By playing in the EBAL, we are going to have to grow up quick," added Foothill coach Matt Sweeney.
The Dons have 56 kids on the team this season, and there is plenty of experience to build a solid foundation.
"Things are good," Sira said following a recent practice. "We have a lot of good players that worked very hard over the summer."
One luxury to start off for Sira is a talented and deep offensive line. Leading the way is senior guard James Moore, a three-year starter for the Dons. At 6-foot and 215 pounds, Moore will be a rock on the line.
"He's a hard worker," Sira said of Moore.
Also returning up front for the Dons is center Jacob Gigliotti (6-2, 220), tackles Peter Ernst (6-2, 220) and Tucker Quinn (6-1, 225) and guard Chase Barkdull (6-2, 215).
"It really helps stabilizing the offense having all the returning seniors on the line," Sira said.
Running the offense is returning junior quarterback Ronnie Jones. After sharing time early last year, Jones took control as the season went on and now is back for the second year.
"The kids see him as a leader," said Sira. "He is better in terms of confidence, understanding and decision-making. He is able to get the ball into places he didn't last year.''
When Jones goes to the air, look for Collin Miller (another third-year starter) and Malachi Davidson to be the big play-makers down the field. Over the middle, Sira and Jones will be counting on tight end Harrison Mayo (6-3, 220) to be tough to stop.
"He really could be a D-I (college) guy," Sira said of Mayo.
Amador has always been a team to be able to pound the ball and behind that strong offensive line, runners like Mitchell Copenhaver, a punishing senior runner, and junior Patrick Loughnane figure to rack up their share of yards.
On defense, the Dons also have their share of players back, but there is a blend of some new players that could make an impact. On the line, Mason Bartolo -- a 5-10, 215-pound sophomore -- has played well so far.
"He is a big, thick, strong and quick guy," Sira said of Bartolo.
As for the rest of the defensive line, the coach's plan is to rotate through a lot of the offensive line starters, keeping them as fresh as possible.
"I am very pleased with the depth right now," Sira said.
The linebacker crew will be led by returning middle linebacker Patrick Pipitone. The 5-11, 190-pound hard-hitter started last year in the middle for the Dons and gives Sira a solid base in the middle.
"He really is a great leader," said Sira of Pipitone.
Loughnane and Mayo return as solid outside backers, with Jacob Felix also returning.
In the defensive backfield, Sira is blessed with another solid returner as the leader with Miller back for another season at safety. Adam Schmit is set at the other safety spot with Davidson holding down one cornerback spot. The other corner is a position with several players looking to be the starter.
All in all, Amador is a team loaded with experience.
"We do have a lot of kids back and that means we are further along installing the offense and defense," Sira said. "That allows us to spend more time on individual drills."
Coach Sweeney has had his share of talented football players suit up for the Falcons over the years, but this year his returning skill players are off the charts.
"The skill guys we have are as good as any I have ever had," said Sweeney, who normally downplays the level of talent on the Foothill roster.
At the forefront are a pair of seniors that have started for the varsity team for three years and are both moving on to NCAA Division I football. Isaiah Langley (USC) and Kyle Kearns (Southern Methodist University) give Sweeney a great starting point for this season.
"Isaiah is the most explosive football player I have ever coached," Sweeney said. "And he is very coachable and very hard working."
Langley (5-11, 175) is spotted all over the field for the Falcons, on offense getting time at receiver but also seeing his share of running plays as well. Kearns (6-3, 190) is the Foothill quarterback for the third season, with his playing time the last two years leading Sweeney to expect even bigger things this season.
"What's changed over the years is now we have Kyle with 20 starts at quarterback," Sweeney said. "The game has really slowed down for him. He can do a number of things for us and not miss a beat."
With other returners like Ruben Mercado (WR/FS), Isaiah Floyd (RB/CB), Cash Connolly (FB/OLB) and Matt Gates (RB/OLB), there are plenty of options to move the ball. However, the Falcons only return two starters on the offensive line which leaves some big shoes to fill.
Mike Parisi (5-10, 190) and Dustin Dukleth (6-0, 200) are both only juniors, so even as returning starters, there still is a lot of youth.
"Our guys up front right now are a work in progress," Sweeney said. "We have to grow up in a hurry."
Seniors Kohlten Clark (6-2, 255), Justin Gronley (6-2, 200) and Justin Silliman (6-4, 230) will all need to step in and be productive this season. Junior Jaron Jackson (5-10, 190) has been working well as a new player on the varsity squad.
Sweeney said he has also been pleased with the progress of a pair of sophomores thus far. Dylan Walsh (5-11, 243) and Brennan Gallagher (6-1, 190) have fit right in for the Falcons.
"They are tough kids and have done very well," Sweeney said of Gallagher and Walsh.
Sweeney also has high praise for junior newcomers Josh Merryman (5-10, 180) and Blake Braden (5-11, 165).
One other key returning player for the Falcons is senior kicker Dan Rodriguez. Kicking has always been a strong point for the Falcons and having Rodriguez returning shortens the field for the Falcons to put points on the board.
In the end, there are a lot of talented players suiting up for Foothill this year, but there are a host of unanswered questions as well.
"We have to be disciplined and way tougher," said Sweeney. "When you are tough, generally you are disciplined and that's where we need to be."
Amador Valley High Football Schedule
August 29 WASHINGTON 7 p.m.
September 5 ENCINAL 7 p.m.
September 12 bye
September 19 EL CERRITO 7 p.m.
September 26 Granada 7 p.m.
October 3 at Monte Vista 7 p.m.
October 10 at California 7 p.m.
October 17 SAN RAMON VALLEY 7 p.m.
October 24 at Livermore 7 p.m.
October 31 DE LA SALLE 7 p.m.
November 7 FOOTHILL 7 p.m.
Foothill High Football Schedule
August 29 at San Leandro* 7 p.m.
September 5 FREEDOM 7 p.m.
September 12 bye
September 19 CASTRO VALLEY 7 p.m.
September 26 SAN RAMON VALLEY 7 p.m.
October 3 at Livermore 7 p.m.
October 10 MONTE VISTA 7 p.m.
October 17 CALIFORNIA 7 p.m.
October 24 at De La Salle 7 p.m.
October 31 at Granada 7 p.m.
November 7 at Amador Valley 7 p.m.
*at Burrell Field