Merced College's final bid for a .500 season crashed back to the Earth just a few feet short.
From the start of the season, 5-5 was a mark many believed would be attainable in Bob Casey's second season as head coach and first full year holding the reigns.
It proved to be more than attainable.
Four of the Blue Devils' losses were by single scores, with the last three coming by a total of eight points.
Those eight measly points are all that separated MC from a conference title and the team's first bowl bid since 1997. So, while not finishing at .500 is disappointing, there's plenty for the Blue Devil faithful to be encouraged about for next year.
Casey doubled his win total from a season ago, earning the school at least four victories for just the fourth time in the last 14 years.
And while losing close games has been a common occurrence for MC over the last decade, seldom has it happened where they were hands down the better team.
There were few games this season in which the Blue Devils were outclassed. Despite having one of the tougher schedules in Northern California -- which is guaranteed to be easier in 2012 -- the Modesto Junior College blowout was the only time the Blue Devils weren't in the game.
That's particularly encouraging when you consider that many Blue Devils will return next season. Merced had 24 sophomores on the roster, with 18 seeing regular playing time. That gives Casey about 40-50 players who should be back to develop further next year.
That could be the first step toward MC building something better. Keeping players has been a challenge in the past, but that might be changing.
Every school's roster thins over the season. There's a natural attrition of guys being unhappy with their playing time, not wanting to take the physical pounding of the college game or just not being willing to give effort to a team that's struggling on the field. All three have hampered the Blue Devils in recent memory, but this season's final roster still had 60-plus players.
That MC was competitive from start to finish played a big part, but I think equally important is the playing environment Casey is creating.
His players enjoyed themselves, could see the master plan being put into place and wanted to compete for their coaches every single week.
The impact of having sophomore-laden team cannot be overstated, particularly when those sophomores got as much game experience as MC's 2011 freshman class.
If Casey can retain the abundance of talent he should have coming back, the next step will be to cash in on the good will this year's team created around the community and add 40 to 50 freshman who can contribute.
The 2011 MC football team resonated with Blue Devil fans, and many stuck with the team all season. Merced fans give the team a chance each year, but then disappears after a couple losses.
That wasn't the case this season. That the Blue Devils went 4-1 at home helped, but the MC faithful traveled well too.
There's a definite interest in the program that hasn't existed in some time. If Casey can tap into that and bring in another good recruiting class, the Blue Devils might be looking for more than just a .500 record next season.
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at email@example.com.