The valley’s seemingly endless dry fall ended with a downpour on Friday. As the rain washed away harvest dust, it also took with it Turlock High football's dreams for a Central California Conference title — with just one play.
It was a battle between the top two teams in the CCC when Merced came into Joe Debely to face off against Turlock for the league title between the two undefeated teams.
Turlock’s defense kept the Merced offense off balance for most of the contest after they held them to a season-low in total points, but by the end of the game the Bears beat the Bulldogs, 10-7.
“We had a lot of challenges to overcome this week, as a team and as a staff, our biggest thing is I challenged our guys to give 100 percent tonight and I know we did,” Turlock head coach James Peterson said. “We nearly came out to achieve what we needed to but we were one play short. Does that mean Merced is a better team than us? I do not know, but they played a great game.”
Turlock is now 3-1 in the CCC while Merced is a perfect 4-0 and have clinched the CCC title for the second consecutive year.
Turlock’s next game, the Harvest Bowl against crosstown rival Pitman, will be the deciding factor on whether the 5-4 Bulldogs will clinch a postseason berth or hand it over to the Pride.
“I have been waiting my whole life to play this game,” said senior Zach Moore. “I’ve wanted to beat Pitman my senior year since I was a little kid. My dad has been their announcer and I am ready for them, I am ready to beat them.”
To make matters worse on Friday, Turlock was also playing without its star receiver Jeffery Hines and starting inside linebacker Andy Jennings.
Sophomore Mustafa Noel-Johnson stepped into the role for Jennings and along with Moore and Jereicho Taamu, the linebacker core was the rock of the team for most of the game, making big stops on crucial situations.
“We knew it was going to be tough without one of our star players but our sophomore [Mustafa] stepped up and we knew he would, he is a great player,” Moore said about the team missing two key players.
The game started off slow and inconsistent due to the weather as it was a stalemate with both squads playing very aggressively on the run game.
Turlock forced a fumble on the second play of Merced’s first drive and scored on their second play after Brandon Booz sprinted his way down the middle of the field for the early touchdown to go up 7-0.
Turlock’s defense stopped Merced on fourth and one in the next two possessions but they couldn’t respond as quarterback Bubba Moreno threw an interception to Merced’s Jabar Byrd and then fumbled on the ensuing drive.
Luckily, the play did not affect Turlock, after senior Jacob Mabie intercepted a pass from Merced quarterback Tyrone Williams following the fumble. But, yet again, Turlock was forced to punt on a three and out.
Merced capped off the first half with their only touchdown of the play after Byrd ran it for 40 yards out as the clock was expiring to end the half at seven each.
After a big fourth down stop from the Turlock defense in the opening drive of the third quarter, Merced got the ball back and marched it down the field after an 11-play drive ended with a 27-yard field goal from Favian Prado — which would eventually be the game winner.
The Bulldogs are now focused on their matchup with Pitman. The Harvest Bowl is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Joe Debely with the playoff implications bigger for this game than any other.
“Pitman now is the biggest game of the year, it will obviously determine where we sit in the playoffs and, really, we're just going to take one game at a time just like we have all year,” Peterson said. “We will prepare for them and get our guys ready for a sold out crowd.”