Previewing the Tri-River Athletic Conference: Preseason Rankings and Players to Watch

The 2021 Central Section football season is nigh, and when Madera South plays at Mission Oak on Thursday, high school football will return to the Central Valley for the first time in…

Four months.

Clearly, it was a short offseason, but a lot has changed. Stud players graduated, familiar faces moved to new places, and the Central Section introduced a new playoff format. One thing that remains the same, however, is Clovis High at No. 1 in the Clovis Roundup preseason football rankings, just as they were in the spring.

Preseason TRAC rankings:

  1. Clovis High
  2. Central 
  3. Buchanan
  4. Clovis East
  5. Clovis West
  6. Clovis North

Below is a season preview of each team in the Tri-River Athletic Conference entering the 2021 fall high school football season. All stats courtesy of MaxPreps.

Nate Johnson (left) looks over the defense during Clovis High’s first fully-padded practice on Saturday, July 31, 2021. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)
  1. Clovis High Cougars

2021 Spring Record: 

3-2

Top offensive players: 

QB Nate Johnson

RB Tristan Risley

WR Nic Viau

T Jahlon Jimenez

Top defensive players:

DB/WR Carlos Mack

DE Christian Smith

S Cody Gale

S Isaiah Salsedo

Key departures:

DE Connor Price, DL Ayden Merrihew, WR Andrew Dowie, TE Parker Morgan

Preview: Clovis High is the highest-ranked football team in the TRAC thanks to its talented individual players. Whether the favorites win the league depends on how they come together as a team.

What hasn’t been said about superstar senior quarterback Nate Johnson yet? He brings game-breaking speed to the position, running the 100-meter dash in 10.49 seconds last May. The Utah commit also improved as a passer last season, throwing for 1,022 yards in 4 ½ games (he missed most of the Central game due to injury). 

Then there’s senior running back Tristan Risley, the guy that head coach Rich Hammond called the best running back he’s ever coached in 13 years. Risley led the TRAC in rushing as a sophomore, and he rumbled for 722 yards and 11 touchdowns in five games last spring. Clovis also returns its top wide receiver from the spring season, senior Nic Viau, who reeled in 417 yards and averaged 17.4 yards per catch. 

What puts the Cougars over the top is adding senior cornerback/wide receiver Carlos Mack, who transferred from Edison High after spending his elementary and middle school days in the Clovis High region. The Oregon State commit helps bolster a defense that struggled late in close losses to Central and Buchanan last season. Clovis returns six starters on that side of the ball — senior safeties Cody Gale and Isaiah Salsedo, junior cornerback and kick returner Jaden Carrillo, senior linebacker Kenny Lafaele, and senior defensive linemen Christian Smith and Tyler Boragno.

Another defensive player to watch is 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior Tovie Martin, who moves exceptionally well for his size. He’ll play both defensive end and interior. Hammond said, “I really expect that after we get halfway through the season, [Tovie] will be recruited very hard.”

Central QB Dayton Tafoya. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)
  1. Central High Grizzlies

2021 Spring Record: 

4-1

Top offensive players:

QB Dayton Tafoya

RBs Jesiah Lindsey / Ah’marion Gaines-Smith

WRs Marquise Greene / Braylen Hall

T Tanner Hirschler

Top defensive players:

DE Jeremiah Shelton

DE Amarian Hunter

CB Imari Conley

LB Marcus Ramirez

Key departures:

RB/LB Aidan Fortenberry (transfer), T Kasen James, QB DJ Stevenson, DE Jeff Armstrong

Preview: If its talent comes together, there is no reason why Central won’t reclaim the TRAC crown after losing it to Buchanan in April. It’s all about consistency for the Grizzlies, who welcome junior quarterback Dayton Tafoya to the fold. Tafoya is learning a new offense after transferring from Clovis West, but his ability to extend plays and feed his playmakers make him an ideal fit in head coach Kyle Biggs’ offense.

And the offense is deep and loaded with playmakers. Running backs Ah’marion Gaines-Smith and Jesiah Lindsey bring different styles to the position, leading Biggs to refer to the duo as “Thunder and Lightning.” Gaines-Smith is a power back with a dash of agility, and Lindsey has the speed and vision to take an open hole in the defense for a touchdown. 6-foot-3 senior wide receiver Marquise Greene will be Tafoya’s top target, but there are plenty of receiving options. Sophomore Braylen Hall, the team-leader in receptions last spring, sophomore Noel Felix III, junior Ladanian Streets and senior Kamren Taylor are all difference-makers in a deep wide receiver pool.

Defensively, Central returns two-time All-State senior defensive end Jeremiah Shelton, the only Grizzly starter remaining from the 2019 state championship team. Shelton led the Grizzlies in tackles (31) last season. He’ll be flanked by defensive end Amarian Hunter, who recently made the position switch from linebacker. Junior Imari Conley and senior Elijah Lindsey will control the perimeter as cornerbacks, and hard-hitting junior safety Kaleb Tennsion is expected to make an impact. 

Buchanan LB Logan Studt.
(Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)
  1. Buchanan High Bears

2021 Spring Record:

5-0

Top offensive players:

QB Jayden Mandal

RBs Caden Rodgers / Michael Runnels

WR/LB Josiah Ayon

Top defensive players:

DE/TE Gavin Nelson

LB Logan Studt

CB Robert Johnson

S Jerry Rangel

Key departures: 

S/WR Hayden Petersen, WR Darrien Gaines, WR Stephen Shelley, C Zack FIsh 

Preview: Yes, the defending, undefeated TRAC champions come in third in the preseason rankings, but to no fault of their own. The Buchanan High Class of 2021 played a big role in the Bears’ title season. Hayden Petersen won TRAC Player of the Year and wide receivers Stephen Shelley and Darrien Gaines eased the transition for transfer quarterback Jayden Mandal. Petersen, Shelley, and Gaines have graduated, as well as four starters on the offensive line and several more defensive contributors.

Mandal, now a junior, opened up Buchanan’s offense last spring with his ability to make big plays through the air. The Fresno State baseball commit also displayed late-game poise by leading game-winning drives against Central and Clovis. Mandal’s biggest target this fall is senior wide receiver/outside linebacker Josiah Ayon, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound threat. Mandal will also wheel it out to either of his top running backs, senior Caden Rodgers and junior Michael Runnels. Rodgers and Runnels get it done in the running and passing game using different styles, with Rodgers a bigger back than the speedier Runnels. Buchanan will rely on both, as it typically leans on its running backs.

Buchanan’s defense, despite losing Petersen, is loaded with talent and experience. There is the all-senior secondary consisting of cornerbacks Robert Johnson and Ezekiel Swayne, and safeties Jerry Rangel and Harrison Kalpakoff. Rodgers and super sophomore Logan Studt return from last season at the linebacker position, plus Ayon as the roving linebacker. The defensive line is led by third-year starting senior end Gavin Nelson, with senior Drew Washburn on the other side and tackles Levi Little and Roman Fries forming the middle.

Clovis East WR Maddox Merlo. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)
  1. Clovis East Timberwolves

2021 Spring Record:

2-3

Top offensive players:

RB/LB Devin Lopez

WR Maddox Merlo

T Dominic Mannion

Top defensive players:

LB Gabe Sinor

DT Brandon Contreras

S Alex Dejarano

Key departures:

S/RB Jacob Tafoya, QB Sean Kelly, K Bryant Thao

Preview: It’s hard to replace legacy guys like quarterback Sean Kelly or Air Force cadet Jacob Tafoya, but that’s what fifth-year head coach Ryan Reynolds is tasked with this season. As far as replacing Kelly, Clovis East has a battle between junior Brady Feramisco and freshman Ty Miller. Reynolds said, “We’re going to have a little competition with Brady and Ty. Ty is a freshman kid who carries himself like a junior. A lot of the seniors respect him and see his work ethic… and Brady is pushing him and has a year under his belt at the varsity level.” 

The team’s best player on offense or defense may be All-TRAC senior running back/linebacker Devin Lopez, who ran behind Tafoya last season and takes on starting duties in the backfield this fall. 6-foot-3 junior Xavier Garcia, senior Maddox Merlo, and junior Carson Sandoval will be key wide receivers in an offense that continues to blend its run-first identity with a passing game.

Offensive success will rely on the offensive line’s pass blocking and how quickly the T-Wolves can expand that aspect of their attack. Clovis East returns three seniors to the O-Line and starts juniors at the center and tackle position. Defensively, All-TRAC Mike linebacker Gabe Sinor leads the cause and, alongside Lopez, makes a formidable middle of the defense. Clovis East has seven returners on defense and a new defensive coordinator from Bullard High School, Brandon Nagle.

Clovis West RB D’Ante Benjamin. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)
  1. Clovis West Golden Eagles

2021 Spring Record:

0-4

Top offensive players:

RB D’Ante Benjamin

RB/LB Mychael Crawford

WR/CB Marshel Sanders

Top defensive players:

DE Brian Evans

S/WR Markel Sanders

DB/WR Bryan Villa

DL/TE Jaden Gonzales

Key departures:

DE Marcel Sanders Jr, WR Isaiah Howard, QB Dayton Tafoya (transfer), DE Derek Moreland

Preview: Former Clovis West and Fresno State linebacker Eric Brown enters his first season as head coach with a lot of new faces on the team. Sophomore Tyler Patrick, a backup quarterback on varsity last season, and returning JV starter Ryan Markarian will compete for the starting QB job. The battle may not be decided for the first few weeks of the season, but whoever starts will feed senior running back D’Ante Benjamin. Junior Mycheal Crawford is another name to watch in the backfield. Limited varsity experience on the offensive line is a question mark for Clovis West, which graduated three multiple-year starters in Nickolas Herrera, Sterling Williams, and Matthew Nolt.

Clovis West will also miss its two leading receivers from a season ago, Isaiah Howard and Preston Kilbert. Super sophomore Marshel Sanders will take on a receiving role while playing cornerback, and his junior brother Markel can similarly split time between receiver and safety. Even with big brother Marcel off to San Jose State, the Sanders brothers will make a big impact in the fall. Brown said, “They just have a great attitude, and they’ve got a great family that is supportive of them… and they’re multi-sport athletes, so you know that they’re really good athletes and they stay in shape all year round.”

It’s also worth mentioning that senior safety Bryan Villa, who tied for the team lead in tackles (31) last spring, is one of the most important returning defensive players for Clovis West.

Clovis North Offensive line. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)
  1. Clovis North Broncos

2021 Spring Record: 0-3

Top offensive players: 

C Dashiel Hein

RB Peyton Mathias

Top defensive players:

DE/RB Paul Sharp

LB Ryan Pyzer

Key departures:

S/KR Michael Jacot, OL Andrew Wiens, DT Aaron Ruacho

Preview: Clovis North suffered the most from the COVID-19 pandemic among the TRAC teams. The Broncos dealt with an outbreak during training camp, then another one that wiped out two games. A vast majority of expected senior starters did not play, and quarterback Dean Scrivner was thrust into starting the final game against Central despite never playing a snap at the position before then.

It’s a new season and a new slate for Clovis North. Scrivner, senior Alec Guerrero and sophomore Jack Petrissans will compete for the starting quarterback job. Third-year head coach Michael Jacot believes the strength of the offense is the running game. Senior Peyton Mathias, junior Jonathan Harvey, and senior Paul Sharp form the Broncos’ committee of running backs. First team All-TRAC offensive lineman Andrew Wiens graduated, but the Broncos return four seniors up front — center Dashiel Hein, guard Aron Garcia, and tackles Adam Gerena and Austin Smalley. Clovis North will also heavily employ a tight end in senior Justin Virgen

Clovis North is switching to a 3-4 defensive scheme, taking advantage of a senior quartet of linebackers highlighted by Ryan Pyzer. Clovis North’s starting defensive front seven has one junior; the rest are seniors. It’s the strength of a defense that currently has a young secondary.

The Roundup’s Central Section TOP 10:

  1. Clovis (last season: 3-2)
  2. Central (last season: 4-1)
  3. Buchanan (last season: 5-0)
  4. Liberty (last season: 4-0)
  5. Frontier (last season: 4-1)
  6. San Joaquin Memorial (last season: 5-1)
  7. Garces (last season: 2-3)
  8. St. Joseph’s (last season: 5-0)
  9. Kingsburg (last season: 5-0)
  10. Bullard (last season: 4-2)

On bubble: Tulare Union, Sanger, Clovis East, Clovis West

Gabriel Camarillo has written for the Clovis Roundup since August 2019 and follows high school athletics, Fresno State football and former Clovis Unified student-athletes. Gabe also writes for The Collegian as a staff sports writer and works at One Putt Broadcasting as a board op for 940 ESPN radio.