SAN RAMON -- California High football players spent a lot of time pumping iron this summer, a fact that should power the Grizzlies when the games begin.
"I would say this is my strongest team since I've been here, in terms of lifting weights," fifth-year California coach Eric Billeci said. "They've had a great offseason and a good summer, so we're anticipating that will translate onto the field."
The Grizzlies, who shared the East Bay Athletic League title with San Ramon Valley last season and advanced to the North Coast Section Division I semifinals, have every reason to expect similar success this season.
"I hope so. We put in a lot of work," senior quarterback Cameron Owen said. "I think it would be hard for the guys to just let it slip through their fingers after all the hard work that we've put in this offseason."
Under Billeci, a former De La Salle and Saint Mary's College player, California has advanced to NCS the past four years, including finishing second in 2010.
But Billeci is wary of the EBAL competition.
"I think every team is a contender," he said. "Every year it could be everybody. ... I can see Foothill winning it, San Ramon, Monte Vista, us. Granada is going to be a lot better. ... It's one of those years in which everyone's gonna be tough. That's the way it is in this league."
The Grizzlies are experienced on offense with four linemen returning along with Owen and his top target, CJ Cornwell. A formidable defensive line will feature Mahe Fifta, who is 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds.
"He's a monster," Billeci said of Fifta.
Moreover, Billeci is thrilled to a have a returning starting quarterback for the first time in Owen. He and Cornwell, a first-team all-league utility/slot guy last year, have been playing a lot of pass-and-catch and fine-tuning routes.
"Me and Cameron, we put in a lot of work," Cornwell said. "We usually throw a lot together, so our chemistry's there."
It stands to reason that the Grizzlies would throw a bit more, but Billeci, who favors a smash-mouth style, isn't giving anything away.
"Maybe. We'll see," said a smiling Billeci, whose team averaged 250 yards rushing a game in 2012. "Cameron can run, he's like a running back back there, but with him and Cornwell coming back we should be able to throw the ball around a little bit more."
Told of his coach's thoughts, and Owen offered a knowing grin.
"Yeah, he's definitely a power team, but being a third year (quarterback) coming back and having some good targets to throw to, I think he's a little more comfortable with our passing game this year," Owen said. "So we'll see how it pans out, but otherwise, whatever the team needs we'll do."
Senior Blake Bierwirth (6-0, 220) returns at tailback, and newcomers Simi Hingano and Justin Locklear look promising as a running back/linebackers. The Grizzlies are inexperienced at linebacker overall.
A strong runner, Owen (6-0, 190) is more comfortable with the system and more accurate with his passes this time around, his coach says.
"It's been a huge difference returning back," Owen said. "It's a lot easier to understand the concepts, and now it's starting to where I can put a twist on things and run routes the way I might want to run them, specifically, or have CJ run it a certain way, or Matt (Lorenz). I get to be more specific in what I do, so it's a little more comfortable."
Owen is confident in the big guys up front as well. They know their quarterback well.
"Most of the guys on the line, they've been the guys I've been with since like my freshman year, with the exception of Tyler (Whisenhunt) and (Matt) Snyder, so I just have that connection with them.
"Dean (Heinz) and (Jeffrey) Huettenhain were brought up with me my sophomore year, and so I have a special bond with them and definitely trust them that they're going to have my back."
Aug. 30 WASHINGTON 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 at Pittsburg 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 CASTRO VALLEY 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 GRANADA* 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Amador Valley* 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 FOOTHILL* 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at Monte Vista* 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 SAN RAMON VALLEY* 7 p.m.
Nov. 1 at Livermore* 7 p.m.
Nov. 8 at De La Salle 7 p.m.
* EBAL game