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Merced a sleeping giant?

LOS BANOS -- Dennis Stubbs saw it coming.

The Los Banos coach remembers having a conversation with then Golden Valley athletic director Kevin Swartwood about the Merced football program four years ago.

"I remember saying it's not going to be long, it's coming," Stubbs said. "I've seen Merced's program grow into what it's become the last two years.

"About three years ago, you could see it turning -- just athletically and the coaching alone. When we were at Golden Valley, we always felt they had more athletes.

"Don't get me wrong, we had a lot of good athletes. They just had a lot more.

"You could see it in warm-ups. We'd have five defensive backs warming up and they'd have 15. That tells you something right there."

All Merced has done is go 29-4 the last three years, including a trip to the Sac-Joaquin Section title game last season.

Merced (9-0), which has already clinched a second straight Central California Conference title and the top seed in the playoffs, will wrap up the regular season tonight against Los Banos (5-4).

Merced hasn't finished a regular season 10-0 since 1993.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Loftin Stadium.

"It's an opportunity for us to match up against one of the best teams in the state," Stubbs said. "It's a chance for us to see how we measure up."

Los Banos saw its playoff hopes end with a 42-21 loss to Pitman.

For Merced, tonight's an opportunity to face a team that can attack in different ways.

"They're going to give us some different looks," Merced coach Rob Scheidt said. "We had some trouble against a spread look last week.

"We have to get better at it. Los Banos can also run their power football at us with (Casey) Cotta."

Stubbs can only shake his head when he thinks about the group of athletes that have come through Merced in the last couple of years.

"You hope you get a run of players like that, but then it's what do you do with them? That's a credit to Rob," Stubbs said.

"They've gotten what you want out of them. A lot of schools get a run of players and they underachieve.

"It's a jumpstart to the program when you have guys like the Todd twins and Carlos Acosta. Those are special players.

"They were able to bring a spark to Merced. It breeds people that want to play and be a part of it."

Scheidt credits some of the success to a philosophical change in the program after the 2003 season.

"The first thing was accountability," Scheidt said. "There were no free rides in the program.

"There are certain standards all our players need to meet as far as time and work in the off season.

So how does Los Banos stop Merced?

Well, Stubbs better find a way to slow Merced down.

"The biggest thing is their overall team speed," Stubbs said. "No one even comes close to them in our league. I mean, not even close."

Merced could be without a couple key players tonight.

Cornerback Jamichael Turner was held out of practice earlier this week with a strained hamstring.

Fullback Bryan Sims is also questionable (shoulder strain).