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UPSET OF THE CENTURY: Turlock stuns undefeated St. Mary’s
Turlock football
Turlock quarterback Cole Gilbert holds up a sign with the Bulldogs’ theme throughout the playoffs, “Why Not Us?” Friday’s historic win over St. Mary’s proved that the Bulldogs can hang with the best of them (Photo courtesy of the Turlock Quarterback Club).

The No. 7 ranked Bulldogs of Turlock High have punched their ticket to the semifinal round of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I football playoffs after knocking off No. 2 ranked St. Mary’s High Rams, handing them their first loss of the 2022 season. It was a nearly four-hour shootout for the ages in Stockton that saw the Bulldogs come out victorious by a score of 51-50 – marking the biggest win in program history.

The win may have come as a surprise to many fans and prep sports analysts, but it wasn’t to Turlock head coach James Peterson. Before the game, Peterson walked down the sideline staring as the Rams warmed up.

“That’s a pretty good team over there,” Peterson said. “But I think we’re a pretty good team too.”

Throughout the entire game, nearly every offensive drive for both teams ended in touchdowns. The Rams got on the board first after St. Mary’s quarterback Samson Hunkin rushed for a 20-yard score. But like a classic boxing match, the Bulldogs came back with a counterpunch, led by star quarterback Cole Gilbert.

On the Bulldogs’ first possession of the game, Gilbert found wideout Joshua Weatherbee for a 29-yard TD pass to even the score at seven points. The score gave the defense some confidence in their second appearance as they wound up stopping the Rams offense on fourth down on the ensuing drive deep in Turlock territory. Once again with the ball in his hands, Gilbert used his legs to break lose on a quarterback keeper for a 67-yard TD. A missed extra point left it a 13-7 game.

After some huge defensive plays by Turlock’s Cole Hendrix, Gilbert once again led his team down the field before capping off the drive with a 9-yard TD pass to Jeremiah Bertalotto. A failed two-point conversion kept it a 19-7 score.

The Rams refused to lie down and die, though, as they went down the field in a hurry to get right back into the mix with a 1-yard TD dive by Asante Carter, making it 19-14 Bulldogs. After a stop by the Rams defense, they drove down the field again, capping off their trip with a 6-yard TD run by Hunkin, giving his team the lead at 21-19.

The Bulldogs then gave the Rams a taste of their own medicine, milking time on the clock on a long drive that was finished off with a Gilbert 1-yard TD leap. To make up for the missed extra point and failed two-point conversion earlier in the half, the Bulldogs executed a perfect double reverse route that saw Gilbert catching a pass from wideout Andrew Johnson in the endzone, giving the Bulldogs a 27-21 lead.

With under two minutes left in the half, the Rams once again marched down the field. Eventually, with one second left on the clock, Hunkin found Cayden Ward in the endzone for a 15-yard TD and a 28-27 lead.

After the halftime break, the Rams picked up right where they left off as Hunkin found Brooks Wheatley for a huge 45-yard TD score. Now facing a 35-27 deficit, the Turlock high coaching staff once again went into their bag of tricks. At the St. Mary’s four-yard-line, the ball was dropped off to backup quarterback Vincent Gonzalez, who rolled out to find Gilbert wide open in the endzone. Gilbert followed up his receiving touchdown by rushing for a successful two-point conversion, tying the game at 35.

On the ensuing drive, the Bulldogs defensive line stole show, making multiple tackles for loss, including a sack by Gavin Martinez. The Turlock offense would soon get the ball back and score almost immediately, as Gilbert found Johnson for a 33-yard TD strike. Gilbert kept the high pace going as he rushed for another two-point conversion, giving his team a 43-35 lead.

But the Rams kept putting their heads down and going forward. Nobody played the role of a Ram better than Carter, as his ferocious running style was rewarded with a 1-yard TD. A St. Mary’s two-point conversion attempt was also successful, once again tying the score at 43 right before the end of the third quarter.

Once the fourth quarter got started, the chaos continued, this time at the hands of the referees and chain gang. On a crucial fourth and three play, the Bulldogs hurried to the line of scrimmage as soon as a whistle was blown, handing the ball off to star running back JT Foreman II. Foreman clearly grabbed three yards, but more whistles were blown and the play waived off, with the officiating crew citing that the Rams the chain gang – who was apparently training individuals - didn’t have time to get set. The negated play resulted in a Bulldogs turnover on downs after Foreman was then stopped short of the line. The undefeated squad took full advantage by punching in a 1-yard TD by Carter, making it 50-43.

With six minutes left to play, Gilbert looked to make things even once more. Unfortunately for him, a deep pass intended for Johnson was intercepted, and the Rams were back in business. On the drive, the Bulldogs did what they could to contain the Rams, eventually forcing a field goal attempt. The tides would shift, though, as they attempt was missed wide-right, giving the Bulldogs a chance.

And a chance was all they needed.

With under three minutes left of play, Gilbert and the Bulldogs quickly found themselves in Rams territory. Finally, with a 1:11 left to play, Gilbert flashed his arm again, finding Peter Mello for a 23-yard TD. Still faced with a 50-49 deficit, most other coaches would kick the extra point to guarantee overtime. But James Peterson isn’t just any other coach.

The Bulldogs offense remained on the field, and as soon as the ball was snapped to Gilbert, he took a step and jumped, lobbing the ball over the line of scrimmage to a wide open Johnson. The Bulldogs led 51-50.

Johnson’s heroics wouldn’t stop there, though. With 24 seconds on the clock, the Rams were driving again and looked poised to score. But just as in last week’s playoff game, Johnson was a menace in the secondary. Hunkin fired a ball down the middle of the field, but Johnson cut it off, intercepting it, sliding down and securing the historic victory.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Gilbert said after the game. “That was crazy.”

Gilbert explained that the team had heard the constant write-offs for his squad heading into the game, and that it served as motivation.

“Our gameplan coming in was, ‘Why not us?’ These guys are ranked high, but we’ve been grinding for this moment. We’ve been waiting for this day to come.”

A joyous Peterson shared similar sentiments, citing the perseverance he has seen from his team throughout the season.

“I’m just so proud of the team, the coaching staff and all of their hard work. It’s hard getting guys to believe every week when you’ve been down, kicked and tossed around and gone through injuries,” Peterson said. “I’m just proud for our whole camp, our Quarterback Club, just everybody.”

Peterson also made mention of his wife, Tess, who has been in a battle with breast cancer.

“I need to give a shoutout to my wife, too,” he said. “She’s going through the breast cancer this year and it’s been a hell of a year. This has been a nice reward.”

The Bulldogs now travel to El Dorado Hills next Friday for a date with No. 3 ranked Oak Ridge High Trojans. While Turlock will once again be the underdogs, Oak Ridge lost 21-17 to a Rocklin team earlier in the season that the Bulldogs bested 14-7 — so anything can happen.