ATWATER — Uh-oh, that slumbering beast in the southern half of the Sac-Joaquin Section is awake.
And it's RSVP'd for the postseason, bringing with it a familiar brand of football.
Merced, the last Division 1 team from this region to reach a section final, is back in the postseason.
Beware of those Bears.
Merced snapped its three-year playoff drought Friday evening, mixing hard hits, an opportunistic defense, sound special teams and a quick-strike offense in a 17-7 victory over Atwater in the 43rd Santa Fe Bowl.
Anthony Munoz recovered two second-half fumbles and returned one for a score, and Merced (6-3, 3-1 Central California Conference) scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to clinch its first Division 1 playoff appearance since 2008.
"What a crazy, crazy feeling," said Munoz, a disruptive force at 6 feet, 205 pounds. "It's such a good feeling."
The celebration started after Atwater's Nathan Duran fired a fourth-down pass out of bounds with less than a minute left, sealing Merced's playoff requisite sixth win.
Cornerback David Keys, a captain and third-year varsity player, fell into the arms of assistant coach Paul Hogue.
Bradley Adamson led his teammates in a chant, and Munoz slapped hands with Josh Villanueva -- a just reward for the game's central figure.
Munoz's fumble recoveries led to 14 points, including a 1-yard smash by Sam Scheidt with 4 minutes, 56 seconds, remaining.
"It's a big relief," said Merced coach Rob Scheidt, his team pinned to 4-6 finishes in each of the last three seasons. "We knew this would be a tough game because of the emotion they (Atwater) bring. They've been playing well and they play great defense.
"It's tough to play two great games in a row. But you know what, I liked our resiliency tonight. We kept fighting and fighting."
It was a classic throwdown of the area's original rivals. The game played to a 0-0 stalemate in the first half, with both teams failing to muster much of an attack against the other.
Combined, the teams had just 134 yards of offense in the first half and three turnovers, as the punting units commanded the spotlight.
But Merced delivered in the final 24 minutes, leaning on its defense -- gashed for nearly 450 yards two weeks ago by Buhach Colony -- to create opportunities.
The fates picked an unlikely hero in Munoz, a junior who hadn't touched a football during a game since his freshman year.
Munoz scooped up a fumble at the Atwater 18 and rumbled into the end zone for a 7-0 lead with 8:39 left in the third quarter.
"I was surprised to see the ball," Munoz said. "I didn't do my job right, but I recovered and made a play."
He had some help, though. Sophomore end Justin Solis applied the back-pressure, jarring the ball free from Andrew Avila's hands.
To their credit, the Falcons (6-3, 2-2) scored with relative ease on their next possession.
Shane Lambert capped an 11-play, 68-yard drive with a 6-yard burst around the left edge to make it 7-7.
"It looked like they had found their rhythm," coach Scheidt said.
Merced snatched it right back, piecing together its best drive of the game to start the fourth quarter.
Eli Gutierrez (170 total yards, 10-of-18 passing) dialed up three consecutive chunk plays to move the ball to the Atwater 30-yard line: a 16-yard pass to Travante Richards, a 33-yard, over-the-shoulder snag by Keith Bolden (two catches, 46 yards), and a 16-yard burst by Errol Dennis (seven carries, 32 yards).
Daniel Silva cashed in moments later with a 27-yard field goal, ultimately the game-winning points.
"There has been a lot of frustration," Scheidt said of the last three years, "feeling like we've had teams that could play at that next level ... play in the playoffs."