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Anticipation boiling over for tonight's big game

David DeLaTorre can't handle the waiting.

The Merced linebacker hasn't been able to get tonight's game against Stockton St. Mary's off his mind.

"I've kind of had the nervous feeling all week," DeLaTorre said. "I wake up in the middle of the night and it's like: Is it time?

"We know it's going to be a challenge. This game isn't going to be like the other games where it was decided by halftime.

"We're ready for it."

For DeLaTorre and Merced, the waiting is almost over.

Two of the top teams in the state will square off tonight when No. 20 St. Mary's (10-1) comes to Don Odishoo Field to face No. 12 Merced (11-0) in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

"People have been anticipating this game for awhile," said Merced coach Rob Scheidt, whose team defeated St. Mary's 31-21 in the first round of the playoffs last season.

"It's a situation where we feel like we're playing well. We're just playing guys in different spots.

"(St. Mary's) is good, too. We feel that their front seven or eight guys are as good as we've seen on defense all year."

Merced is one of two local teams left in the playoffs.

In the Central Section, No. 4 seed Chowchilla (8-3) will travel to No. 1 seed Taft (10-1) for a semifinal matchup.

That kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Chowchilla is trying to advance to the Valley Championship game for a fourth straight season.

Merced is vying for another shot at the Sac-Joaquin Section title.

To get back to Stockton, Merced must first survive the toughest team it's faced this season.

St. Mary's features an explosive offense that has scored over 50 points five times this season.

Junior quarterback Cody Vaz has plenty of weapons and he's used them all on his way to passing for 23 touchdowns and more than 2,100 yards.

"We have to be relentless on defense -- on every play of every possession," Scheidt said. "We've got to have guys step up and make some big plays.

"No one has been able to put pressure on their quarterback. We've got to, whether that means bringing extra people or getting pressure with our front four."

It's no secret Merced will be without its star receiver Jarrett Sparks.

The 6-foot-3 senior will miss his second straight playoff game with mononucleosis.

Quarterback Brandon Garcia will try to play tonight with a torn thumb ligament on his throwing hand.

Scheidt will have a healthy Stephon Mathis -- who has topped 200 yards on the ground each of the last two weeks, and has racked up 1,153 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

However, Scheidt Merced won't suddenly turn into a ball control team without Sparks.

"Early on last week -- as you could see -- our game plan didn't change a whole lot without him," Scheidt said. "We started running the ball well and we rode Stephon.

"The bottom line on Friday is we have to stop them."

That's where DeLaTorre and the defense come in.

With a season full of blowouts, this team has been waiting for a big game since opening the season in Los Angeles against Crenshaw.

"I'm very excited," DeLaTorre said. "Everyone is talking about the game. I go into the grocery store and people ask me if we'll be ready. This feels like a section title game."

Sac-Joaquin Section

Division I Quarterfinals

St. Mary's (10-1)

at Merced (11-0)

WHEN: Tonight, 7:30 p.m. at Merced College

AND THE WINNER GETS... the winner of tonight's Pitman-Stockton Lincoln contest.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Without star receiver Jarrett Sparks, Merced's chances just might come down to how its defense can stop a St. Mary's offense that scored 56 points against Tracy last week.