PITTSBURG -- For just the second time in the last six years, the Pittsburg High football team enters a new season without being the defending Bay Valley Athletic League champions. And taking back that title won't be easy for the Pirates.
But with one of the best running backs in the area in Harris Ross and experienced players on both the offensive and defensive lines, Pittsburg believes it will at least be in the mix for the league championship once again.
At a scrimmage on Aug. 23 at Los Medanos College, the Pirates held their own against De La Salle, California and James Logan -- teams that have a legitimate chance make up three-quarters of the North Coast Section Division I semifinals.
"I was pleased with tonight. These are four of the top programs in Northern California, and I was happy with our performance," Pittsburg coach Victor Galli said after the scrimmage. "We have a lot of stuff to clean up. We haven't arrived yet. But we saw a lot of good things, a lot of positives to build on."
One of those positives was the performance of Ross, who had two impressive touchdown runs in the brief scrimmage against De La Salle.
Ross was part of a talented backfield last season that also featured Craijon Menefee and Jamal Lockett, which combined for over 2,600 yards on the ground. Ross rushed for 911 yards and six touchdowns on 77 carries, a ridiculous 11.8 yards per carry.
Although Pittsburg has other running backs it'll work into the mix, Ross will be the focal point of the team's offense.
"I feel like I've improved a lot since last year," Ross said. "I still have things to work on as far as speed and everything, but I'm looking forward to the season."
Ross will be running behind an experienced offensive line that paved the way for 40 rushing touchdowns last season. Although they'll be without the graduated Antonio Huey, a unanimous all-league selection last season on both sides of the ball in 2012, the Pirates do return Rene Cardona, Larry Serna-Cruz and De'Angelo Powell, and also feature Antonio Baldazo and Jay Oliver.
"They've been together and have played a lot together. They're all smart, they all know what to do," Galli said. "We have some young guys on the perimeter, but (the offensive line makes) it easy because they have a year of experience."
Behind center is junior Keith Walker, who not only is playing his first season of varsity football, but also his first season of organized football.
The coaching staff has been working with Walker since spring practice, and he looked mobile during the scrimmage.
"Right now, the game still hasn't slowed down for him yet," Galli said. "He's very smart, but he's in the infant stages. When it slows down for him and he understands what's going on out there, I think he's going to be really, really good. I'm excited.
"We're going to bring him along slowly. We're going to rely on our run game, but we're not going to be one dimensional."
Defensively, the Pirates lost several all-league players from last season. But back is linebacker Noah Palega, a second-team all-BVAL pick as a sophomore last season, and several members of the line who are playing both sides of the ball.
The Pirates start another challenging nonleague schedule with a game Aug. 30 at Analy-Sebstopol. Galli will take his team to a pregame meal at a restaurant in the area owned by his family. Analy is his mother's alma mater.
"It's going to be a fun trip," Galli said. "Hopefully the trip home is going to be fun, too."
Aug. 30 at Analy 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 CALIFORNIA 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 at Monte Vista 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Berkeley 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 GRANITE BAY 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 HERITAGE* 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at Liberty* 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Freedom* 7 p.m.
Nov. 1 DEER VALLEY* 7 p.m.
Nov. 8 ANTIOCH* 7 p.m.