Dustin Grein did his part, intercepting two passes and returning one for a touchdown to get the scoring started for the Turlock High football team.
Dallin Tilby put on a kicking display, booming three field goals including kicks from 47 and 45 yards.
The Bulldogs defense did the rest, recording five sacks and limiting Merced to just one score as Turlock defeated the Bears 23-7 on Friday night at Veterans Stadium.
The win clinches at least a share of a second consecutive Central California Conference championship for the Bulldogs (7-2 overall, 5-0 CCC).
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“The last time Turlock won back-to-back league titles was in the 1940s,” Grein said. “To be part of the team to do it means something special.”
The Bears (3-6, 2-3) came in needing a win to keep any shot of making the postseason.
Merced put up a fight for most of the night against the top team in the conference, but the Bears just couldn’t find ways to finish drives and couldn’t overcome three turnovers.
“The effort was good,” said Merced coach Rob Scheidt, whose team has turned the ball over nine times in the last two losses. “Obviously the turnovers are the same result. Our level of execution didn’t go up on offense.”
Friday night marked the 70th time Turlock and Merced have squared off on the football field since their first game in 1968. The Bulldogs improved their series lead to 38-30-2 all time against the Bears.
With Turlock and Pitman leaving the CCC after this season, is the rivalry between Turlock and Merced dead?
“It’s sad to lose Merced,” Bulldogs coach James Peterson said. “It’s a great school. I’m going to try to get something worked out with coach Scheidt. I’m bummed we’re not playing Merced next year. Merced is always tough. it’s always one of our biggest games. It seems like we’re always playing for a championship.”
Turlock won’t be on Merced’s schedule for at least the next 2 years. The Bears have already renewed contracts to play Madera, Del Campo and Gregori and have added Downey to the schedule to fill out their nonconference games.
“It’s going to be different not having (Turlock) in the league,” Scheidt said. “For 22 years I’ve been playing against Turlock and then also Pitman when they joined the league. It’s going to be a different dynamic. I know we’re comfortable playing at Joe Debely Stadium and they’re comfortable playing at Veterans Stadium and before that Merced College.
“I’ve got friends on all the staffs in the league. I’ve become really close to them. They’re good guys. I’m going to miss seeing those guys.”
The Bulldogs are leaving the CCC as champions.
Grein started the game by intercepting a pass from Merced’s Junior Garcia on the fifth play of the game and returning it 45 yards for a touchdown. Garcia was starting at quarterback for Dhameer Warren, who was late to the game for personal reasons.
“I just saw the quarterback looking right at him the whole time,” Grein said. “I set up outside to try to bait him. It was an easy play. It was a big play and it got the team hyped up, but there was benefits to the play and negatives. I think because we scored so quickly we thought it was going to be another blowout game.”
Turlock had outscored its last three opponents 158 to 16.
Merced answered right away with a 75-yard drive that took nine plays as Garrett Egan capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to pull even at 7-7 with 6:09 left in the first quarter.
Tilby gave the Bulldogs a 10-7 lead at the half with a 47-yard field goal with 7 seconds left in the second quarter. The Turlock senior added another 45-yard field goal to extend the lead to 13-7 with 10:11 left in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs defense put the clamps down on the Bears offense and Turlock quickly made it a two-score game as Cameron Sherwood hauled in a 15-yard touchdown catch from Jonah Kosakiewicz to extend the lead to 20- with 5 minutes left in the third quarter.
“We’ve had a couple games where we just mowed down teams and got up early,” Peterson said. “This game didn’t feel like that. Merced fought the whole game. I never felt like we got this. Even toward the end I was telling our coaches if they score get ready for an onside kick.”
Grein’s second interception of the game sealed the victory with about 4 minutes left in the game. His long return helped set up Tilby’s third field goal of the game that gave Turlock a 23-7 lead.
“I thought our guys fought hard,” Scheidt said. “We had a couple opportunities, but when we weren’t able to come up with those opportunities it changed the game.”