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STOCKTON — Much has changed since Tony Franks, a former UC Davis lineman and a longtime football coach, was playing for St. Mary’s High in the mid-1970s.

“Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth,” said a light-hearted Franks, in his 19th year coaching his alma mater, “and football players wore leather helmets.”

Since Franks donned St. Mary’s green and white as a player, and came back for his first stint as head coach from 1984-1986, St. Mary’s has morphed from a reliable San Joaquin County playoff team into one of Northern California’s best.

Franks returned in 2002, and has a record of 149-45: a winning percentage of .768.

Cardinal Newman faces the Rams for a fourth consecutive season, and is seeking its first win in the series when the two meet at 7 p.m. Friday in Santa Rosa.

Hearing “St. Mary’s” may not carry the same cachet as “De La Salle,” but it’s getting there gradually. Last season, the Rams captured their third Sac-Joaquin Section championship, and first CIF NorCal bowl win, before losing in overtime in the state Division 1-AA championship to Cathedral Catholic of San Diego.

Not to mention, the program has become the football destination for high school standouts throughout the region, and a home to sublime facilities. St. Mary’s has opened an athletic center in the past few years — including a weight room, locker room, classrooms and coaches’ offices — worth roughly $3 million.

While underfunded public school programs throughout the state struggle to scrape together the basic equipment to properly train their players, St. Mary’s has flat-screen TVs on the sideline on game day to analyze film between series.

“Now, the game is more of a statewide interest,” said Franks, a former Santa Clara and UC Davis assistant who was a finalist for the Southern Oregon head coach opening this summer.

“It just takes an army of people working together to field a program at this level.”

But Franks hopes the close-knit essence of the program from the ’70s — when Duane Isetti, now St. Mary’s press box’s namesake, was head coach — is still thriving. It’s still a small school, with a student body between 800-900, after all.

As far as his own tradition, Franks intentionally schedules as many fellow strong, parochial programs as he can in the preseason. That includes an ongoing series with Cardinal Newman and coach Paul Cronin, whom Franks lauds every year.

St. Mary’s (1-0) has won all three recent matchups with Cardinal Newman (1-0), but it hasn’t been easy. The last time the Rams trekked to Santa Rosa, they escaped with a 35-34 win via a last-second defensive stand.

“The last time we were down there, (Cole Norgaard) was playing defensive end for us and had to make a stop on (former Newman quarterback Jordon) Brookshire on a two-point conversion attempt at the end of the game, to win the game by one point,” Franks said.

“ … It’s a dandy game for both of our schools.”

It’ll be the first time, at least in their recent matchups, when the Rams have faced a Brookshire-less Newman team. Brookshire performed well last year in St. Mary’s 49-32 win against Newman in Stockton, when the Rams didn’t pull away until the second half.

Norgaard and 30 other seniors graduated after 2016’s run to state, but St. Mary’s doesn’t really have down years anymore.

Senior running back Dusty Frampton, who grew up on a ranch in the small town of Linden east of Stockton, returns after posting a single-season school record 2,345 rushing yards.

Two-way stars in Tre Jenkins III and Marcus Aponte — receivers and defensive backs — are seniors who may be playing NCAA Division I football a year from now. Jenkins’ twin brother Drew Jenkins is a lockdown cornerback.

Quarterback Noah May, a sophomore, is a precocious talent. This week marks his first varsity road game. May threw 228 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 41-13 steamrolling of Serra of San Mateo last Friday.

St. Mary’s sent two players to the Pac-12 last year in linemen Norgaard (Washington) and Popo Aumavae (Oregon), and has collegiate talent awaiting again in Tre Jenkins, Aponte, Frampton and 6-foot-6, 280-pound senior lineman Max Barth, who has an offer from Cal among other West Coast schools.

“I know we have a lot of new talent coming up,” Barth told The Record newspaper in Stockton, “and I know that they (can prove) themselves.”

St. Mary’s has proven it can be balanced offensively, running the pistol formation, often utilizing one tailback, three receivers and a tight end at the skill positions. In 2016, the Rams had 4,066 passing yards and 3,712 rushing.

These players aren’t just talented, but many are continuing on proud family traditions. The Jenkins twins are sons of Aaron Jenkins, who played football for the University of Washington. Kenny Moore, a former Washington State player who starred at Bay Area’s Menlo-Atherton, is father to speedy receiver and special teams whiz Dumaurier Cotton.

Dumaurier’s older brother Dewey Cotton is a former Rams star and freshman for Sacramento State football.

“They’ve got some better athletes, and plus, they’re getting a lot of (alumni’s kids). The coaching is so much better, man,” said Wayne Schneider, a former longtime head coach of Tracy, a Tri-City Athletic League foe of St. Mary’s. “They’ve got a heck of a coaching staff.

“And their facilities, with that weight room, and then they’ve got their stadium. They’ve got a first-class facility.”

St. Mary’s matchup with Newman is part of a preseason saturated with playoff-bound opponents. It culminates with facing Mater Dei of Santa Ana, MaxPreps’ preseason national No. 1, on Sept. 23 at the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara as part of a doubleheader showcase.

Franks, though, never overlooks Newman or Cronin.

“It’s terrific. I’ve known Paul for quite some time, even before our time here. We’ve both been doing this awhile, and he does it so well,” Franks said. “His teams are always so well-prepared, and they really know how to play the game.”

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