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Merced High's Stephon Mathis is back in the saddle

Rob Scheidt still doesn't like to think about it.

The Merced coach remembers looking over his shoulder and seeing both his running backs -- Stephon Mathis and Darrion Gray -- sitting on the bench with ice wrapped around their knees during the fourth quarter of Merced's 50-0 win over Madera three weeks ago.

"I try not to look back at that," Scheidt said. "I felt

pretty worried when Stephon went down."

If you think Scheidt was worried, imagine what it was like for the kids.

"I was petrified," Mathis said. "I felt like I broke my leg or something. I felt a pop in my knee.

"Darrion and I just sat on the bench talking about how bad our injuries were."

After sitting out Merced's 16-6 win over Sonora with a high right ankle sprain and a sprained knee, Mathis will be back in the lineup Friday when Merced (3-0) hosts Pitman in a key Central California Conference matchup.

"I feel like I'm close to 100 percent," Mathis said.

"I feel like I'm able to do what I was able to do before the injury."

Gray's status is still up in the air.

He'll undergo arthroscopic knee surgery on Thursday to help determine the extent of his injury.

It's feared Gray may have torn his anterior cruciate ligament.

All Scheidt and his players can do is hope for the best.

"The kid is a tremendous worker," Scheidt said. "He's a great kid who has put in a lot of time."

Mathis, on the other hand, knows he's fortunate to be back on the field so quickly.

He only wishes his backfield mate was with him. Oddly enough, the two friends were competing against each other this summer for the starting job.

"Me and Darrion have known each other since we were 9 years old," Mathis said.

"It's his senior year and he didn't get to play a lot his junior year. Now he goes down with a leg injury.

"A big part of me feels like I'm playing for both of us. I can say he's like a brother to me."

After his injury, Mathis couldn't walk around the Merced High campus without somebody inquiring about his condition.

"The whole school was asking," Mathis said. "Everybody would ask if I was going to play. Even people I didn't know came up to me."

Mathis doesn't know if he could stand on the sideline and watch his team play another game without him -- especially a game in which the offense struggles as it did during a 16-6 win over Sonora two weeks ago.

There's no way he was going to miss this week's conference opener against Pitman (2-1).

The two teams came into the season as the favorites to win the CCC.

"This is the biggest game we'll see until we get to the playoffs," Mathis said.

"If we don't beat Pitman, I don't know another team that will beat them."

The injuries to Mathis and Grey forced Merced to scramble to find replacements.

Bryan Sims moved from fullback to tailback in their absence. Safety Bernard Bolden also got some work in at tailback during practice.

Mathis' return puts everybody back at their normal positions.

"We haven't seen him in the 'heat of the game' type of thing yet," Scheidt said by way of warning.

"He hasn't had to take it to that level yet. From what I've seen in practice, that shouldn't be a problem."

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at sjansen@mercedsun-star.com.

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