Defending state champion Hughson football team kicks off 2023 season Friday night

There is no getting around it. The Hughson Huskies football team will have a huge target on its back this year. That’s what happens when you win a state championship, as Hughson did last season. It comes with the territory.

“Absolutely,” was Coach Shaun King’s answer about whether opponents will gear up for Hughson. “We have high expectations. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

As much as the Huskies can proudly point to last year’s California Division 5-AA title – accomplished with a 9-6 victory over Muir of Pasadena in the rain and mud at Hughson Memorial Stadium in December – what happened in 2022 is now history. The 13-2 record that also included a Sac-Joaquin Section Division V and NorCal titles means nothing.

When Hughson kicks off the 2023 season on Friday night, the members of this year’s team will begin to write their own story. We’ll find out in three months how that book ends. One thing is certain: the Huskies are unafraid to challenge themselves – four of their five non-league games this season will be against much larger schools, based on enrollment. This week is at Ceres, then home to Central Valley of Ceres, followed by another road game at Pitman of Turlock, then home games against talented Downey of Modesto and Elite of Vallejo.

Because of Hughson’s reputation as a small-school power, it’s not always easy convincing larger schools to play the Huskies. King credited phone calls by HHS Principal Loren Lighthall for getting some of this year’s opponents to say “yes.”

“These big schools have everything to lose (if they don’t beat a smaller school),” said King.

Hughson was the smallest school in a joint scrimmage with Franklin, Stagg and Sierra last week in Stockton and “We got the best of everybody,” King assessed. Though pleased with his team’s effort, he thought the Huskies were still tight.

“I don’t want the team to be nervous,” King said. “I want to loosen them up. Forget about expectations, just go out and play. That’s our focus for this Friday, from coaches and to our senior leadership.”

Hughson returns plenty of experience from the talented group that survived the playoff gauntlet last season, starting with junior quarterback Robert McDaniel, who took over under center while still a freshman. A year ago, he threw for more than 1,900 and 25 touchdowns. Now 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, McDaniel is bigger and stronger, and he’s improved his mechanics and throwing motion after working with quarterback coach Greg Panelli of Fresno. Already, McDaniel has drawn Division I college scholarship offers from Toledo and Arkansas State.

Asked to list McDaniel’s strengths, King quickly answered, “His intelligence and his competitiveness. He doesn’t like to lose at anything.”

King said McDaniel has input into which plays Hughson will use game to game. In two-minute drill situations, the coaches allow him to call all the plays.

“He’s gained my trust,” King said. “He’s very intelligent, very smart. I saw it in eighth grade; I knew he was going to be the guy.”

Hughson’s receivers include three veterans from last year’s team – senior David Delgado (40 catches, seven touchdowns), senior Larkin Meyer (21 catches, 10 TDs) and junior Malakai Sumter (14 catches, three TDs). Sophomore Bryce McDaniel (Robert’s younger brother) also could figure into the mix this year.

Senior Alex Villarreal, who had 799 yards and 10 TDs in 2022, will be the featured running back.

King is very excited about this year’s offensive line, calling it one of the best he’s had in his six years as coach.

Right tackle Navi Arretché is 6-3 and 315 pounds with “very quick feet,” according to King. He’s already drawn some small-college interest. Arretché will be joined on the line by left tackle Anthony Villarreal, left guard Ivan Flores (who started as a sophomore, but missed last season with a knee injury), center Carlos Guizar and right guard Edwin Olivo.

“They’re a very tight group,” King said. “They’re very good at winning the line of scrimmage battle.”

On defense, middle linebacker David returns for his senior season after an impressive 2022, when he led the team with 152 tackles. “He’s a beast,” King said.

The line features senior Ryan Borelli, who had 3.5 sacks last year, and juniors Max Mankins, Colton Taylor and Travis Harkrader.

Delgado, who led the Sac-Joaquin Section with six interceptions last year, returns at safety along with Sumter, while Meyer and junior Cesar Ramos will be the cornerbacks.

After the five non-league games, Hughson will have a week off in September before it opens the rugged Trans-Valley League schedule at home Sept. 29 against rival Escalon, which also won state, Section and NorCal titles a year ago despite – like the Huskies – finishing behind Hilmar in the regular-season standings. That’s just one more example of how tough the TVL is year in and year out.

As in any season, Hughson’s first goal is to earn an elusive TVL championship, something it hasn’t accomplished since 1998.

“We’re excited to get going again,” said King.

This season, the Huskies’ coaches will wear a patch on their shirts with the letters “SH” to honor the memory of assistant coach Shane Hughes, who died in June. He coached defensive backs last year.