Coach Mike Bargas is entering his fourth year as head coach of the Estancia High football team, making this year's senior class the first he has had each year.
The reward for the players? Repeated games against Irvine schools.
Estancia will face them three weeks in a row, playing University at Irvine High on Sept. 23, Northwood at the same venue on Sept. 30 and Beckman at Tustin High on Oct. 8. Only Beckman made the CIF Southern Section playoffs last year, but those teams promise better competition than the Magnolia and La Quinta teams that the Eagles rolled over in 2009.
Playing teams from the master-planned city fits into Bargas' master plan just fine. He wants to continue improvement this year, which starts with a home scrimmage against Segerstrom Friday. The regular-season opener is also at home, against Bolsa Grande on Sept. 9.
"We want to play those Irvine schools," Bargas said. "We raise the bar every year. I came here with a mission to get a ring, eventually."
The Eagles can't do that without winning a playoff game, a feat they haven't accomplished since 1980. Last year they finished third in the Orange Coast League and, predictably, got a tough draw, falling at Laguna Hills in the opening round of the Southern Division playoffs.
But one way Estancia can get a better draw is by winning league, which it hasn't done since sharing the title with cross-town rival Costa Mesa in 2007. This year, for the first time in Bargas' tenure, the rivals play each other in the final regular-season game.
The Eagles players already look forward to that game. They are confident about their chances against Mesa, who they haven't beat since that 2007 season. Quarterback John Diego, though, remembers a different game from that year.
It was the freshman game against Mesa, when Diego's 51-yard touchdown run helped the Eagles edge the Mustangs, 16-15.
Think a one-point win three years ago didn't make an impression? Diego still remembers that game well; he said it was the first time he had ever been interviewed by a reporter. The Eagles would love it if Diego, a backup last year, gets interviewed plenty this year, because that would mean their passing game is clicking.
"We're both going to be two of the top teams in the league," said Diego, although that wasn't the case the past two years as Costa Mesa and Laguna Beach won league titles. "It really all comes down to who wants it more and who comes out harder."
Senior Omar Gutierrez, a two-time Newport-Mesa Dream Team performer at tight end and defensive end, is moving to linebacker. He's usually soft-spoken but he makes it clear, as well.
It's over two months out, but the Eagles will be ready for the Battle for the Bell.
"We know we're better than their 12th graders," Gutierrez said. "We won our freshman year and we think we have a pretty good chance this year."
First things first. Beating Bolsa Grande would be a good start for Estancia, as the Eagles have never won their opening game under Bargas.
With the starting quarterback (Alek Kirshner) and running back (Alex Abalos) both lost to graduation, there are some question marks at the skill positions, although senior Matt Carlyle returns at receiver and is strong in the secondary at his free safety spot.
Bargas called the offensive line an obvious strength of the team, as there are four returning starters in Diego Moya, C.J. Thomas, Tony Toledo and Zach Bateman.
Sophomore running back Robert Murtha has a buzz around him after a dominant year last year on that same freshman football team, and Bargas is leaning toward Murtha starting.
But whatever happens, the Eagles think they're ready.
"Last year, we weren't really a team," Gutierrez said. "This year's more bonded. We all trust each other and the O-line should get it done."