MERCED — Kris Turner-Jackson had a birthday to remember.
The Merced High senior celebrated his 17th birthday by rushing for 113 yards, including a key 40-yard touchdown in the second half, to help the Bears clinch the Central California Conference title with a 24-14 win over Atwater in the 44th Santa Fe Bowl on Friday night at Veterans Stadium.
"It's one of the best feelings," Turner-Jackson said. "I can't explain the feeling. Winning a championship on my birthday is great."
With a 10-point lead at the half, Merced (7-2 overall, 4-0 CCC) turned to its running game to shorten the game and hold off the Falcons (5-4, 2-2).
Nineteen of Merced's 26 plays in the second half were running plays, with Turner-Jackson carrying the ball 14 times for 81 yards in the final two quarters.
"It was kind of a deal where I didn't feel like we had the ball a lot in the second half," said Bears head coach Rob Scheidt, whose team won its first CCC title since 2008. "When we did have it, I didn't want to do anything to risk anything. We could have thrown more because Tyrone (Williams) was seeing the field so well."
Both teams scored touchdowns on their opening possessions.
Sam Scheidt scored on a 1-yard drive to cap off a 10-play, 64-yard drive for Merced on the first possession of the game.
Atwater answered with a 74-yard drive that ended with quarterback Nathan Duran hooking up with Isaiah Washington for a 38-yard touchdown pass.
The Bears then took control of the game in the second quarter. They cashed in on Mitchell Meyer's fumble recovery as Daniel Silva connected on a 33-yard field goal to give the Bears a 10-7 lead with 8:34 left in the second quarter.
Merced then struck just before halftime, as Williams found A.J. Stewart open for a 32-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bears a 17-7 lead with just 23 seconds left in the first half.
"Just too many mistakes," Atwater head coach Bob Valladao said. "We fumble on a play where I thought our guy was down. We give up three points there. Then we can't get a drive going and give up a score.
"That 10 points is up their on the scoreboard right now."
The loss puts the Falcons in a must-win situation to make the playoffs next week as they head into the Bloss Bowl against Buhach Colony.
Turner-Jackson put the game away in the third quarter when he broke free for a 40-yard touchdown run that gave Merced a 24-7 lead with 2:30 left in the quarter.
"The 40-yard touchdown run was just all effort," Scheidt said. "We didn't block well on that play. When you boil it down, most great football plays are guys giving great effort.
"Kris does that for us."
With just over a minute left in the game and Merced ahead 24-14, chants of "CCC! CCC!" began coming from the Merced fans.
As the clock ran out, Scheidt received the traditional Gatorade bucket shower.
"For us, it's been a long time coming. We feel like the last years we've been right there knocking on the door. To have this group break through that's really big for us.
"I'm just really proud of our guys. The competitiveness of this league, it's not an easy league to win."