LOS BANOS -- Perfection didn't come easy.
Los Banos attacked Merced like few teams have this season.
Dennis Stubbs' team built a surprising 11-point lead in the second quarter and even went into the fourth tied against the 15th-ranked team in the state.
However, Merced rallied and put the game away with three fourth-quarter touchdowns to finish the regular season 10-0 with a 48-33 win at Loftin Stadium.
"We've never done it and sometimes you feel jinxed," said Merced coach Rob Scheidt about his own coaching staff finishing the regular season with a perfect record.
"Our guys responded down the stretch and that's important. Our guys didn't panic, and that's important."
It's the first time Merced has gone through the regular season 10-0 since 1993.
The win clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Merced will open up at home next week against Modesto Grace Davis (6-4).
With no shot at the playoffs, Los Banos (3-3 Central California Conference, 5-5 overall) stood toe-to-toe against an undefeated Merced team for most of the night.
With the help of two turnovers, LB opened up a 24-14 lead midway through the second quarter.
It was the first time Merced had trailed in a game since the season opener against Los Angeles Crenshaw -- and the only time they'd been more than a touchdown behind.
Merced's defense looked lost at times with two starters sitting out the first quarter.
Inside linebacker David DeLaTorre didn't play until the second quarter for disciplinary reasons. Cornerback Jamichael Turner saw limited action because of a hamstring injury.
Merced's defense hardly looked like the same unit that had posted consecutive shutouts.
Julio Cortez completed 11 of 15 passes in the first half for 168 yards. He hooked up with Ruble Sangha for three touchdown passes.
"It can't get much better playing the No. 3 team in Northern California and No. 15 in the state," Stubbs said.
"That's why you play high school football. This was a chance to compete against the best. Are you an athlete or not?"
Friday night finally saw the Merced offense bail out its defense.
Stephon Mathis was spectacular while rushing for 209 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries.
Mathis scored two touchdowns in the final 4:23 of the second quarter to give Merced a 27-24 lead at intermission.
With the score tied in the fourth, Allen Huddleston may have come up with the catch of the season.
The junior showed his hoops skills when he out-jumped LB corner Joe Macias and pulled in a one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone, giving Merced a 34-27 lead with 8:18 left in the game.
"I just treated it like a basketball," Huddleston said. "I went up and got it. Something just told me to go up with one hand. There was really no reason for it."
Los Banos answered right back with a touchdown, but Cortez -- who had been battered by Merced's pass rush -- missed the extra-point to keep Merced ahead 34-33.
Merced put the game away with touchdown runs by Garcia and Bernard Bolden. The defense also chipped in with two late interceptions from Darrius Pierce and Huddleston.
"It was good to be in a position like this," Mathis said. "We were able to come together and pull out a win."
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.