James Sulhoff was in tears.
His helmet taken away from him, the Merced linebacker had to watch the final minutes from the sideline as Vacaville defeated Merced 37-36 in the section championship game last year.
Sulhoff had been knocked out, literally. A concussion had forced him out of the game.
"I was crying," Sulhoff said. "It hurt me not being able to go out there to help my team.
"It was the worst feeling knowing I couldn't do anything."
His helmet had been taken away for precautionary reasons. The Merced training staff didn't want Sulhoff to sneak out on the field.
Teammate David DeLaTorre stood right next to Sulhoff.
A knee injury had ended DeLaTorre's day, as well.
"I felt the same way," DeLaTorre said. "It sucked not being out there."
The injuries to the two linebackers was the main reason Merced coach Rob Scheidt elected to go for the two-point conversion at the end of the game.
Sulhoff and DeLaTorre are doing everything they can this year to help give Merced another shot at a title.
Before they can do that, they have to wrap up a playoff spot.
They can move one step closer to that goal this week with a win over Golden Valley in the battle for the Mayor's Cup on Friday at Don Odishoo Field.
"A lot of their motivation is from the section finals last year," Scheidt said. "Both guys were visibly upset.
"They felt they didn't do a good job stopping Vacaville's running game."
Sulhoff, DeLaTorre and the Merced defense have stopped everything teams have thrown at them this season on its way to a perfect 7-0 start.
Merced has surrendered 10 points per game and only Beyer has scored over 20 points.
It's not just the numbers the Merced defense is putting up.
It's the way they're doing it.
At times, it appears opposing offenses go backwards against Merced.
It's gotten to the point where the Merced defense is upset when teams finally do score against them.
"It shouldn't happen," DeLaTorre said. "We shouldn't let that happen, especially in our league."
And then there's the hits.
You won't find a more violent defensive unit.
Bodies are always flying around. The collisions can be heard in Delhi.
"It's the best sound," said DeLaTorre, who leads the team with 64 tackles. "To see their face when they get up.
"They don't even have to say anything. You can just tell by the way they look.
"You have to be fearless. You have to love contact."
You also have to have a high tolerance for pain.
Every collision takes its toll on the hitter as well.
That's just fine with Sulhoff.
"When I'm hurt, I know they're hurt," Sulhoff said.
Scheidt feels both DeLaTorre and Sulhoff are right up there with former Merced players Christian Carlson and Evan Gregory as the best linebackers he's had in his 12 years at Merced.
Add Lou Saeteurn and Nicholas Mann and it's the best group of linebackers Scheidt has had.
"The four of us have been playing together since we were freshmen," Sulhoff said.
"I don't know if there's another person I'd rather play with than David."
The two swapped positions this season.
Sulhoff moved from inside to outside linebacker to take advantage of his speed.
DeLaTorre moved from outside to inside linebacker to take advantage of his 6-foot, 210-pound frame.
"They compliment each other so well," Scheidt said. "The move just seemed more fitting to both of them.
"David is a great plugger. Not that he can't run also. He does a great job of plugging the hole.
"James chases everything down outside."
Both players are preparing for another deep run in the playoffs.
Frankly, anything less than a section title will be a disappointment after last season.
If it is another rematch with Vacaville, Merced feels it will match up better this time around.
"I think so," DeLaTorre said. "We have a lot more speed and not as many players playing both ways.
"We'll be a lot more fresh."
More importantly, DeLaTorre and Sulhoff won't be on the sideline when the game is decided.
This time Sulhoff will keep his helmet strapped on.
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.