Before the final snap of the game, Merced linebacker James Sulhoff halted his troops.
"Lay off, defense, they earned this one," Sulhoff said.
Stockton St. Mary's quarterback Cody Vaz took a knee and suddenly Merced's season was over.
St. Mary's had handed Merced its only loss with a 41-28 win in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs at Don Odishoo Field.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
"It's pretty tough," Merced defensive end Kameron Huddleston said. "It hurts. We didn't want to end it like this."
St. Mary's (11-1) will host Stockton Lincoln next week in the semifinals.
For Merced, the hugs and tears came too soon.
After an 11-0 start, Merced had visions of a section title.
Early on, Merced showed why it came in ranked 12th in the state -- despite various injury problems and the loss of game-breaker Jarrett Sparks.
Merced exploded out of the gate when Bernard Bolden came up with yet another big play -- turning a bad snap on a punt into a 61-yard touchdown run.
"I felt the pressure with the bad snap so I just tried to get out of there the best way I could," Bolden said. "It ended up being a touchdown."
Merced's defense then came up with a turnover when Bolden delivered a shot on St. Mary's running back Cris Wilson that sent the ball flying and eventually into the arms of Sulhoff.
Merced then marched 76 yards on 12 plays with Sulhoff scoring on a 4-yard run to give his team a 14-0 lead heading into the second quarter.
But Merced began making crucial mistakes, and suddenly St. Mary's roared back into the game.
The first goof was a turning point, a fumble near the goal line by quarterback Brandon Garcia that Sam Clark lugged 2 yards for a touchdown.
St. Mary's turned a Bolden fumble into another touchdown when Brandon Warren scored on a 3-yard run to tie things at 14-14 with 2:20 left in the second quarter.
"We put our defense on the field way too long," Merced coach Rob Scheidt said.
"Turnovers will kill you in the playoffs. We know that."
Merced finished with five turnovers.
After watching Merced running back Stephon Mathis -- who finished with 153 yards on 20 carries -- run wild in the first quarter, St. Mary's stacked the line of scrimmage and dared Merced to beat its defense through the air.
With Garcia playing with a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand and Sparks out with mononucleosis, Merced didn't have an answer.
"(St. Mary's) did a good job," Merced coach Rob Scheidt said. "They ran a defense in the second quarter that we haven't seen."
Merced failed to run out the clock in the second quarter while pinned deep in its own end, and once more paid the price.
Vaz found teammate Nick Copriviza open for a 16-yard touchdown pass that gave St. Mary's a 20-14 lead at the half.
St. Mary's appeared to put the game away with touchdown runs from Warren and Wilson that extended the lead to 35-14.
"I'm so proud of our kids," St. Mary's coach Tony Franks said. "They battled and battled and battled.
"Merced is such a good team. They play so hard and so physical."
Merced gave St. Mary's more than a scare late in the game after Sulhoff blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.
Then Allen Huddleston -- who came on in relief at quarterback -- found tight end Kenny Cooper for a 43-yard touchdown pass.
After a three-and-out and trailing just 35-28, Merced had the ball at its own 28-yard line with 45 seconds left.
However, Wilson put the game away when he intercepted a Huddleston pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.
Merced's impressive season was over.
"We're not an easy defense to score against," Bolden said. "St. Mary's is the only team this year to do that."
In the playoffs, unfortunately, it only takes one.
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. Reach him at email@example.com.