ATWATER -- For Merced High, it was onederful. For Atwater, meanwhile, it was a nightmare with Keith Jackson on play-by-play. Three Falcon turnovers in the first quarter led to two Merced touchdowns, allowing the Bears to roll to a 48-12 win in Santa Fe Bowl XXI. A crowd estimated at 8,000, including Congressman Gary Condit, squeezed into the nooks and crannies few knew existed at Falcon Field Friday night to see the Bears win its third consecutive Central California Conference title, 24th straight game and the 39th in the last 40. The Bears will host Lodi, the runner-up in the San Joaquin Athletic Association, in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs next Friday night at Stadium '76. The Bears entered the game ranked No. 2 in the state by CalHiSports, but are a mortal lock to move into the No. 1 spot after Rialto Eisenhower's 16-7 win over previous No. 1 Fontana Friday night. "I'm most excited with the fact that we get to play at home through the playoffs," said Bears coach Mark Speckman. "The playoffs are a whole new ballgame. We just want to play well and get going." Atwater, ranked 10th in the state fell to 9-1 on the season and faces a rematch of its 1989 first-round game last year with Monticello Empire League runner-up Vacaville on the road. The game's momentum went the Bears' way early. Atwater took the opening kickoff and closed as near as the Bears' 28-yard line, when D.D. Lawson took the ball and FUMBLLLLE, and Merced's David Holt recovered it. The teams exchanged punts, with Atwater's Robert Padilla fumbling the ball near the line of scrimmage. Holt again recovered, with the Bears needing just one play to get into the end zone on Jhay Roland's 33-yard run with 2:02 remaining in the opening period. Atwater took possession again on the 20, but Padilla's second fumble was recovered this time by Steven Evans. It took the Bears three plays to make it 14-0 on a 14-yard run by Anthony Volsan and Ryan Dettling's kick with 1:29 remaining. "On those first three fumbles, we didn't take care of the ball when we were running it," Atwater coach Mike Burrows said. "Merced is an outstanding football team which can make its own breaks." Atwater again launched another long drive, closing as near as the Bears' 30, when a Jason Boesch pass to Willie Hawkins flew through the receivers' hands and WHOA, NELLIE, was intercepted by Steve Bailey. "We got some turnovers and that really helped. There were gaining yards on the ground, but they were tough, grinding yards," Speckman said. "You never know how the game might have gone without the turnovers but it definitely helped us." The Bears made it 21-0 with 1:24 before halftime when Eddie Beavers blocked a Brian Ipock punt, which was scooped up by Heath Mellow on the 34 and returned for a touchdown. "It just snowballed on us with turnovers. Merced got clicking and it just got out of hand," Burrows said. Once the momentum got going, it was hard to get it to reverse and shift our way." Merced made it 28-0 by taking the opening kickoff of the second half 74 yards in eight plays, the last 22 coming on a Stephon Jackson run with 8:05 remaining. The Falcons prevented the shutout with a nine-play, 80-yard drive terminated by a 2-yard plunge by John Garrett at the 4:28 mark of the third period. This was followed by a five-play, 62-yard Merced drive that ended in Frankie Zamarripa's 9-yard run with 2:21 to go in the period. Fumbles led to the Bears' last two scores, a 41-yard run by Roland with 11:46 remaining and a 13-yard fumble return by Johnie Akins with 3:01 left. Atwater's other score came on Boesch's 78-yard keeper with 5:47 left. Roland led the Bears with 151 yards on 12 carries. Jackson added 59 yards on eight carries. Boesch led the Falcons with 118 yards on seven carries. Chittenden added 93 on 21 carries.