ATWATER — It was a situation quarterbacks live for, or fear, depending on their level of confidence and expertise.
First place on the line. Facing one of the Stanislaus District's legendary programs. Trailing by six. The final seconds ticking off. And the end zone 42 yards away.
"We've got a play for the situation, and I think it's a good play, but you need a quarterback who can make the play," Atwater coach Bob Valladao said. "We have one of those."
Nathan Sanchez confirmed that, hurling a 41-yard pass to Steve Odom, who crossed the goal line with 5 seconds left. The extra-point gave the Falcons a 21-20 upset of Merced.
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"The biggest pass of my career, for sure," the three-year starter said. "We did a lot of things right to make it work."
Michael Gutierrez sold the quick slant, drawing a cornerback and safety; Odom wandered into the flat, before racing up the sideline; Sanchez stepped up to avoid pressure, then found Odom downfield.
The play probably wouldn't have worked a year ago, but a lot of things have changed at Atwater during the last year.
None more than Sanchez.
"Nate felt he had to make every play himself these last few years," Valladao said. "If he felt pressure, he was ready to tuck it in and run with it."
Sanchez had that opportunity last week, with the Bears' pressure forcing his pocket to collapse. Rather than run, he remained focused downfield.
"I used to be a running quarterback, always ready to take off," said Sanchez, who threw for 1,059 yards and ran for 650 yards as a junior. "The thing is, we weren't winning. I realized I had to change things."
Mental, as well as physical.
QB coach and former Atwater star Jared Pimental refined Sanchez's play in the pocket, and Sanchez himself joined a growing number of Falcons in the weight room.
The result is a quarterback who looks to pass first, but is capable of turning a broken play into a big gain, or a TD.
He's completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,070 yards, with 11 TDs and three interceptions. A year ago, he was a 44 percent passer, with seven TDs and 10 interceptions.
Sanchez still will tuck it away and run if he needs to, but usually only after checking all his receivers. He's run for 622 yards and 10 TDs, after scoring six TDs as a junior.
The staggering stat? He has more TD runs and nearly as many yards, even though his 54 runs are well short of the 136 carries he had a year ago.
"Jared has helped a lot, having me focus on the receivers running their patterns rather than the pass rush," Sanchez said. "I realize my job is making sure we win, and we have a better shot if I'm patient."
It was a realization that Valladao has been anticipating.
"Jared was our sophomore coach, but we wanted him to have an opportunity to work with Nate every day in practice," Valladao said. "Jared is Nate's baseball coach, too, so they've got a relationship."
A big line — center Nathan Bender, guards Matt Ogden and Efrain Mendoza, and tackles Chris Hoag and Jose Rosas range from 220 to 275 pounds — and go-to receiver Giovanni Dalmaso (20 catches, 21-yard average, four TDs) have played a role, as well.
"We had a lot of juniors last season and we weren't happy about the way it ended," said Sanchez, noting his team was 4-2 before losing its final four games. "We had to get bigger, but we also had to change the personality of the program.
"We wanted to welcome underclassmen, let them know they were as important as the seniors. There had been some issues before. We also needed to get busy lifting weights."
Valladao added sessions on speed and agility, too, realizing his team had to be fast and flexible, not just strong.
"It's fun being in the group that starts turning a program around," Sanchez said. "You want to build something that remains after you leave. I believe we're doing that here."