The Buhach Colony High football team came into Friday’s big matchup with Merced shorthanded with their top two running backs Christian Quirarte and John Buttrey sidelined with injuries.
It didn’t matter.
Junior Owen Thomas filled in, rushing for 102 yards and three touchdowns and the Thunder defense forced six turnovers as Buhach Colony punched its postseason ticket for the first time since 2012 with a 40-18 win over the Bears at Veterans Stadium.
The win clinches at least a second-place finish in the Central California Conference and an automatic playoff berth for Buhach Colony (6-3, 4-1 CCC).
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“This win is huge,” Thomas said. “The playoffs was always one of our goals. Our coaches have been preaching since day one, ‘Playoffs! Playoffs! Playoffs!’”
Buhach Colony made Merced pay for its mistakes, with the Thunder scoring 24 points after Merced turned the ball over.
Thunder senior Cimmaron Ruiz set up BC’s first score by intercepting a Dhameer Warren pass that eventually led to a 33-yard field goal by Solomon Her and a 3-0 lead with 9:44 left in the first quarter.
Garrett Egan answered for Merced (3-5, 2-2) two plays later with a 59-yard touchdown run that gave the Bears a 6-3 lead after a missed extra point.
It was a game of highs and lows for Egan. He rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries in his second game for the Bears, but he lost two key fumbles.
His first fumble came after the Bears defense stopped Buhach Colony at the Merced 2-yard line late in the first quarter. On the Bears’ first play, Egan fumbled into the arms of Ruiz at the Merced 7-yard line.
Isaiah Long scored on the Thunder’s next play to give BC a 10-6 lead with 4:05 left in the first quarter.
“Turning a turnover into a touchdown on defense would be the best,” Ruiz said. “We haven’t had one of those yet this year. But setting up your offense with a turnover feels good.”
Despite three first-half turnovers, the Bears were still in decent shape at the half trailing 16-12.
However, Buhach Colony’s ground game dominated the second half.
The Thunder rushed for 233 yards in the second half as Merced’s defense struggled to get the BC offense off the field.
Buhach Colony opened the third quarter with 59-yard drive that was comprised of seven running plays. Thomas capped the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to extend the Thunder lead to 23-12.
“It was all the offensive line tonight,” Thomas said. “The line was pushing them around and the holes were huge. It made it easy to cut because I could pick which way I wanted to go.”
Merced pulled within 23-18 after a Desmond Thompson interception set up the Bears offense in Thunder territory. Warren then found Xavier Stewart on a screen pass that went 28-yards for a score with 2:41 left in the third quarter.
The Thunder responded with a 13-play drive that resulted in an Abrams 29-yard field goal to push the lead to 26-18 with 8:45 left in the game.
Egan then fumbled the ensuing kickoff as he was flipped in the air and the ball came out. Buhach Colony’s Aaron Sevilla pounced on the ball and Thomas eventually scored on a 13-yard run to extend the lead to 33-18.
“I felt good after we held them to a field goal in the second half and then we give it right back to them,” Merced coach Rob Scheidt said. “At 26-18, I’m thinking we’re going to move the football down field and I have to get a good two-point play ready. That’s probably optimistic thinking, but I felt we had a lot of good things on the play sheet.”
LJ Wallace, Andres Bernabe, Ruiz and Trey Paster all had interceptions for the Thunder as they picked off Warren four times.
Irik Dobbins chipped in offensively for the Thunder with four catches for 63 yards and 65 yards rushing on six carries.
“I thought Merced had a good game plan,” Buhach Colony coach Kevin Navarra said. “They did some things to take away the box and our perimeter game. We had to throw a lot in the first half. We made some adjustments at halftime. In the second half we went back to our bread and butter and we were able to move the ball on the ground.”