As another Pacific League football season ramps up to kickoff Thursday and Friday, plenty of questions surround the eight member teams, ranging from the Burbank to Glendale areas to the San Gabriel Valley.
Will the league title chase once again come down to reigning co-champions Arcadia and Burroughs? Can Burbank make it back to the brink of a championship after falling one bad half short of a shared title? Or will a young-but-explosive Muir squad rediscover its league dominance of the recent past?
Or, will a new dark-horse contender emerge from among the teams that filled out the bottom half of the standings last season in Crescenta Valley, Pasadena, Glendale and Hoover?
Whether it's the talent-studded group of returners, led by quarterback Myles Carr and receiver Taylor Lagace, or the impression made by its strong run through a tough slate of nonleague games, Arcadia seems to wear the biggest target on its back going into the first week of games.
"Arcadia's definitely, on paper, the team to beat," said Crescenta Valley Coach Paul Schilling, whose team won't face the Apaches (2-1) until the final week of the regular season. "Especially after they beat Monrovia. For them to have beat that team makes you think, 'Uh-oh, they're pretty good.'
"A lot of the other teams, you don't really know. This will be a great week for the league to see. …We might know some more after this week."
Muir (2-1), which finished tied with Burbank for third place in league last year, will get first crack at an Arcadia team coming off a close loss to St. Francis and convincing wins over Monrovia and Temple City at 7 p.m. Friday at home.
"Right now, Arcadia is standing in our way," said Mustangs Coach Ken Howard, whose team has also looked strong in nonleague play with wins over San Gabriel and Saugus and a loss to Rancho Cucamonga. "They're the defending champs, they're tough again this year and if we want to win league, we'll have to beat them."
Muir was an unknown variable coming into the season with just eight varsity returners, but has proven it has the talent to compete behind highly-touted playmakers Tarien Owens and Kevon Seymour. Perhaps the only downside of Muir's youth movement thus far has been its penchant for costly penalties.
"We want to continue to improve every single week. That's how we're going to win," Howard said. "We need to clean up a lot of these mistakes that have been hurting us, whether that's penalties or turnovers. If we continue to improve, then we'll be able to compete for a league title and the playoffs."
But, while Friday's tilt at Muir may indeed be a preview of two teams who end up vying for the league title down the road, anyone who counts out Burroughs and Burbank on face value of their combined 1-5 nonleague record certainly does so at their own peril.
Year in and year out since joining the Pacific League in 2006, the Burbank schools play some of the toughest nonleague schedules in the league, with Burroughs touring some of its former foes from the Foothill League and Burbank lining up schedules that have included Foothill League and Mission League foes in recent seasons.
Burroughs Coach Keith Knoop is optimistic about his team's chances to contend for another Pacific League championship, despite going 0-3 in the preseason and suffering nonleague road losses to Saugus, Canyon Country Canyon and Hart.
"It's always our goal to be battling for a league championship," said Knoop, whose squad has won two straight titles, including last year when it rallied from a 28-0 deficit to beat archrival Burbank, 38-35, in the final game of the regular season with a co-championship on the line for both squads. "We are going to go in and try to be the best coached team out of everybody, we're going to try and beat people by playing physical and having people in the right spots. We're never going to be the biggest or the fastest, we've just got to be more disciplined than they are."
Last season, the Indians suffered losses to the same three Foothill League teams, only to go on to win a share of the league title with Arcadia after being the only team to beat the Apaches in league. They will open league play at 7 p.m. Friday at Pasadena, following a bye week that gave Burroughs some time to get healthy and get some players back who were academically ineligible.
"We're facing a good, disciplined team and need to be good and disciplined ourselves," Pasadena Coach Randy Horton said of Burroughs, which features an offensive attack led by running back Zander Anding and quarterback Eli Peppmuller. "When Burroughs gives us an opportunity, we'll have to take it."
Pasadena (1-2) opened the season with losses to Mission League opponents Alemany and Cathedral before rebounding against winless La Salle last week. Horton is hopeful that his team can build on its 3-4 finish in league last season, which saw it tie with Crescenta Valley for fifth place.
"I believe we can be right up there at the top of the pack. It comes down to us taking advantage of our opportunities, cutting down on mistakes and tackling better on defense," Horton said. "We want to challenge in league. The thing I like from the players is that they're not quitting. That was an issue last year and hasn't been so far this year."
Much like his cross-town counterpart, Burbank Coach Hector Valencia said his team's goal is to challenge for the league championship, beginning with Thursday's 7 p.m. matchup with Glendale at Moyse Field.
"That is the way we're looking at things," said Valencia, whose team went 1-2 during nonleague play with a win against Warren and consecutive losses against West Ranch and South Torrance. "We are young, but we feel we have the athletes to compete. We think that we can make a definite run at it."
The Bulldogs, who are largely new at key positions, including quarterback Austin Mowatt, while returning some starters in running backs Herman Castro and Quortney Brazier, are also coming off of a bye week, which gave the squad some time to work out some kinks.
"They're a new team," said third-year Nitros Coach Alan Eberhart, whose team (1-2) beat Hoover in the season finale for its only win of last year to finish in seventh place above the Tornadoes. "They were good as juniors, they had a good senior group and now they've lost that senior group. Now they've got to go back and get another good group of kids and it looks like they've done that.
"We hit that snag last week, but we think we're better, we've got some weapons. We're better off [going into league] than we were last year or any time during the last two years, so we're excited about it."
Glendale's offense has shown improvement this season in a win over Hoover and consecutive losses to La Cañada and South Pasadena, but its defense has continued to struggle in stopping the run. Burbank has been a particularly tough customer for the Nitros over the last two seasons, winning both meetings by a combined score of 117-11.
"They were blitzing from the corner ahead by 60 the first year and last year they onside kicked ahead by three touchdowns," Eberhart said. "They beat us up pretty good and have not treated us with a lot of respect. We'll come back and see if that means anything."
Heading into Thursday's game, Valencia said he doesn't expect any easy games.
"Overall, the league is improved from the last few years and there are some very good teams," he said. "It's the kind of year that you can't just look at Muir, Arcadia and Burroughs. I think Glendale has improved and we even went out and looked at Hoover and they are better. We have to take everyone seriously."
In the final matchup of the week, Crescenta Valley (2-1) may appear to be getting the most favorable draw in the 0-3 Tornadoes, who did not win a game in league last year. But after watching Hoover outplay Mountain View in the second half last Thursday, the last thing Schilling wants is for his Falcons to look past the Tornadoes.
"It was a great little comeback, they won the second half," said Schilling, whose team has had an up-and-down start to the season, alternating wins over Santa Paula and La Cañada with a loss to St. Francis. "We're keeping our kids aware because we play Muir the next week and we're trying to make sure we're only focused on Hoover this week and starting league in the right way."
Hoover, which has also lost to South Pasadena, relies on a rushing-heavy offense spearheaded by Luke Tabayoyong, who carried the ball 29 times last time out. The Falcons have a versatile ground weapon of their own in running back Marro Lee, who topped 200 yards rushing against La Cañada last week.
"We know it's going to be tough going up against CV," first-year Hoover Coach Andrew Policky said. "Marro Lee is silky smooth and it's going to be a lot of trouble trying to get him to the ground. [Quarterback] Zac Wilkerson is also smooth for them at quarterback."
Andrew J. Campa and Charles Rich contributed to the story