For as long as the majority of the Merced College football team has been alive, a dark cloud has hovered over the program.
No matter the graduation rates or large number of sophomores who transfer to four-year schools, the stigma most associated with the program is losing. It has clung to the Blue Devils like a shipwrecked soul hanging on to a piece of floating debris for the last two decades.
The last time MC posted a winning record was 1997 and only a handful of the current players were alive. For those who grew up in Merced County hearing of the program’s glory days but only witnessing futility, the opportunity to end a streak of 18 consecutive losing campaigns is profound. With two games remaining, the Blue Devils (5-3) have two chances to accomplish just that, beginning Saturday with a nonconference trip to Yuba (2-6) in Marysville. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
“Most of us came here just wanting to continue playing football,” outside linebacker Nathan Duran said. “Growing up here, your goal is definitely not to go play at Merced College. Coming in, you know the team has struggled, but you see it differently once you’re on the team. The reputation isn’t a fair one.
“We have the chance to change the way people think about the program. We’re playing well and we can accomplish something that hasn’t happened in a long time.”
While one winning campaign isn’t going to entirely change the community’s perception of the program, everyone acknowledges it’s an important first step. Players have already seen an uptick of interest during the team’s three-game winning streak.
“It could be just because I’m playing, but people around me are definitely asking about how we’re doing more,” defensive tackle Hunter Stefani said. “I feel like there’s more people in the crowd for the home games. It’s been so long, I think the community really wants to see the team do well.”
And do well it has, outscoring opponents 141-24 the last three weeks.
Quarterback Frank Cocio’s smooth transition to starter has been a big reason for the success. The freshman has completed 55 percent of his passes for 703 yards and eight touchdowns vs. just one interception since stepping in for the injured Andrew Trahan. He’ll try to keep it going against a Yuba secondary that’s forced 11 interceptions in eight games.
“Really, we need to protect the football,” MC coach Bob Casey said. (Yuba) is way better than their record indicates. They’ve played a lot of close games. They’ve had some injury issues. They’re probably the most physical team we’ve played in a while. It basically comes down to the same recipe we’ve used the last few weeks. If we’re the more physical team, we should win.
“A lot of people in the community and that have been around the program for a while have asked what will it mean for us to end this streak of losing seasons. The big thing is, we really don’t dwell on that. As you start putting wins together those opportunities start to present themselves, but our focus all along has been to try and get in a bowl game. To achieve that, you’re going to need to win.”
A victory on Saturday would all but guarantee a bowl game for the Blue Devils.
“We’re close to accomplishing a lot of team goals that we haven’t had a chance to do in a long time. We’ve had some great individual accomplishments the last few years, but from day one this collection of players has bought in to what we’ve asked of them. Their commitment to us and each other is why we have the opportunity to accomplish those team goals like breaking the streak.”