The gauntlet has been thrown down for the Sonora Wildcats. That gauntlet is the ultra-competitive Valley Oak League football schedule.
Webster's dictionary defines gauntlet as an attack from two or all sides and looking at the teams in the VOL, five of the eight members played in the postseason a year ago.
"The VOL is a tough league," said Sonora senior fullback/middle linebacker Nolan Dambacher. "Everybody is tough. It's one of the toughest leagues in the section."
"Oakdale, Manteca and Sierra are the teams to beat again, as usual, but also Kimball is a team to watch," said Wildcat head coach Bryan Craig. "Nothing has surprised me so far with the VOL teams. Everybody is winning that is supposed to be winning in our league."
The Wildcats, who have the second smallest enrollment of any school in the league, begin their run through the VOL gauntlet on Friday night against the Weston Ranch Cougars at Dunlavy Field. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
"I feel we should do very well in the VOL," said Craig. "If we stay healthy and we eliminate the turnovers and penalties that have haunted us a little, we're very effective on the offensive side of the ball. We're putting up over 300 yards a game on the ground. Defensively, we're shutting down most running games, we've had a few problems here and there on pass plays, but everything is fixable. I see us being real strong on both sides of the ball - so I think we can make a good run."
Weston Ranch is not one of the teams that made the playoffs last year, but they have improved and have one thing that scares the Wildcat coaching staff.
"Speed," said Craig. "We don't match up with speed. Weston Ranch is loaded with athletes. They've got guys who are just plain fast all over the field. With the exception of a couple of turnovers in their first three games, they've played pretty well. They only won one of them, but they played Calaveras really tough. I think they're a formidable opponent.
"We have to find a way to overcome that. We just need to play some smashmouth football and hopefully it wears them down."
The Wildcats have been bludgeoning opposing defenses and controlling the ball through the first three games.
The offensive line group of Jesse Ahrenholtz, Ian Fremd, Sammie Guthrie, Kyle Loyd, Joey Schultz, Dylan Vogt and Jaden Banks have been destroying their counterparts on the defensive side of the ball.
They have paved the way for the Wildcats rushing attack, which is averaging 327 yards per contest and 7.2 yards per attempt.
Dambacher has taken full advantage of the holes his offensive line has created. He has steamrolled for 292 yards (97 per game) on 40 carries (7.3 per carry).
The Wildcats have a full stable of running backs that have put up outstanding numbers. Quarterback Dylan Fernandes has rushed for 237 yards on 36 carries and Brandon Camara (18-137), Christian LaPertche (12-107) and Austin Davis (16-95) have all made the Wildcats' rush attack fearsome.
So on Friday night, the road to the VOL crown begins with speed vs. physicality.
"With their speed, they like to run it outside," said Dambacher. "They can also throw the ball and have good receivers. We like to be physical and run through people. It'll be a good game but we should be OK if we play our game."