Friday night marked the 2022 regular season finale for varsity football across the state of California. In Turlock, Joe Debely Stadium played host to the hometown Turlock High Bulldogs and the visiting Gregori Jaguars, a matchup between two teams tied in the Central California Athletic League standings. Aside from playoff implications, the record keepers and statisticians were also on high-alert, as Bulldogs quarterback Cole Gilbert entered the game just 164 yards short of the Turlock High single-season passing record.
By the end of the night, not only did the home crowd celebrate a dominant 37-17 victory, but they also bore witness to a history-making performance. But even though the game ended in victory and offered unforgettable memories, it was a victory that they had to earn as they were forced to play from behind almost immediately.
On just the second play from scrimmage, Gregori running back Alton Williams broke lose for a 66-yard run to set the Jaguars up inside the Turlock 5-yard line. Two plays later, quarterback Grant Veneman punched in the touchdown from one yard out, giving his team a 6-0 lead after a missed extra-point.
But it was Turlock’s quarterback, Cole Gilbert, that would end up stealing the spotlight, starting on the Bulldogs’ first possession of the game. After driving into Jaguars territory, Gilbert found wideout Peter Mello for what should have been a short game – if Mello wasn’t the freak athlete he is. With the ball in his hands, Mello broke multiple tackles and tiptoed the sideline to secure a 28-yard touchdown. It would be Gilbert’s first of five touchdowns in the game.
The 7-6 lead that the Bulldogs held would quickly be increased on the next Turlock drive as another long drive resulted in a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Gilbert, making it a 14-6 ballgame.
The scoring frenzy continued, but this time with help from the Bulldog defense. With the Jaguars starting on their own one-yard line, a gang of Turlock defenders took down Veneman in his own endzone, scoring the rare safety for a 16-6 lead.
Turlock head coach James Peterson later admitted that his team may have come out flat-footed on the opening drive, but was impressed with how they adjusted and dominated from that moment on.
“Gregori is well coached. They definitely came out here to play as good as they can and make playoffs, so they came out here to beat us, and I felt like we came out a little flat thinking they would just roll over for us,” Peterson said. “We definitely got on our guys a bit… Hats off to defensive coordinator Dominic Silva for the adjustments.”
Once again finding themselves with the football after the safety kick, Gilbert and Mello connected again, this time for a 62-yard gain to setting the Bulldogs up in the Jaguars 5-yard line. A play later, Joshua Weatherbee punched in the touchdown, hauling in a 4-yard touchdown pass from Gilbert.
Following yet another stop by the Bulldog defense, Mello kept his foot on the gas pedal and used his agility to get himself open for Gilbert to find him for another touchdown catch, this time from three yards out just before halftime. Heading into the locker rooms, Turlock held a lopsided 30-6 lead.
Facing the 24-point deficit, the Jaguars offense began emphasizing the pass game, hoping for some quick, chunk yardage. It was an approach that quickly backfired as Bulldog safety Hunter Kincaid cut off a Veneman pass and intercepted it, returning the ball to the Jaguars redzone. With ideal field position, Gilbert tossed the ball to Weatherbee again, who evaded and carried defenders on his back and into the endzone for a 15-yard touchdown score, making it a 37-6 game.
“Josh is getting that stigma of being a tough guy, and I think he’s owning it,” Peterson said. “He just refused to go down after he catches it and just gets more. Right now, that’s how we score points. I love that kid.”
After the game, Gilbert gave his own, unique praise for his reliable wideout.
“He’s just a nasty ‘Dog,” Gilbert with a smirk. “If you feed him the rock, he’s going to do something with it. And that goes for all of our athletes. We give them the ball and they can always make things happen.”
After it was all said and done, Gilbert was 16-24 and racked up 265 passing yards, shattering the record. He reflected on breaking the record while continuing to credit his teammates.
“It just feels great,” he said. “None of it could have been done without my team or my coaches who push me to be the best. It’s a great feeling, but props to my guys for helping me make it happen.”
For the moment, the Bulldogs will continue to celebrate. Nevertheless, Gilbert explained that his team will need to regain focus quickly as they await to find out their opponent next week as CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs get underway.
“We’re going to get right to the film right away,” he said. “We’re going to do what we do at practice and just prepare for the next team coming up.”
Playoff brackets are expected to be released on Sunday.