It wasn't too long ago when the Merced High football program was the top dog in the Central California Conference.
The Bears went through the CCC unblemished for three straight years from 2006 to 2008. Merced racked up 21 straight wins before Atwater's Nathan Sanchez burned the Bears with a long touchdown pass in the final minutes in a 21-20 victory at Merced College in 2009.
Now it's Merced (4-2 overall, 1-0 CCC) trying to end Buhach Colony's streak of 16 straight CCC wins when they square off tonight at Atwater High.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"You have to give Buhach Colony respect because they're the team that won the title," Merced head coach Rob Scheidt said. "If you want to win the title you have to beat the team that won it until it's determined otherwise.
"They haven't lost in league going on four years already. Until somebody beats them they're the team to beat. There's no doubt our guys want to be the ones to beat them. We were in the same boat and I remember the celebration the other team had in 2009 when they beat us."
Both teams are coming off their best performances this year.
Buhach Colony (4-2, 1-0) shut out a Pitman team that was averaging over 48 points per game in a 10-0 win last week.
Merced's offense showed off its big-play potential as the Bears averaged close to 10 yards per play in a 48-12 win over Turlock. Quarterback Tyrone Williams threw for two touchdowns and ran for two scores.
While it may be too early to call the matchup a CCC title game, the winner is definitely in the driver's seat.
"You've got one team who is the three-time defending champs and the other team is the runner-up from last year," Scheidt said. "This game is going to determine a lot about which team wins league. I've said one loss might be good enough to win league this year because our league is that good."
The return of senior Kevin Kelleher sparked the Thunder defense last year. The offense did just enough with the help of a Quintin Levesque 78-yard touchdown run in the second half.
What did Buhach Colony co-head coach Kevin Swartwood see from his team that makes him think his team could make another run through the CCC?
"I saw for the first time our kids playing as fast as possible and giving as much effort as possible on every play," Swartwood said. "They weren't worried about bad things that can happen in a football game. That's the first time I've seen that all year."
In other CCC action, Atwater (4-2, 1-0) tries to stay atop the conference with a win against Pitman (4-2, 0-1). The Falcons have lost to the Pride three straight years, but all of the losses came by eight points or less.
Golden Valley (2-4, 0-1) will host Turlock (4-2, 0-1) at Veterans Stadium.
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.