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Everyone lining up to play Merced

Two years ago, Rob Scheidt had a hard time finding teams willing to play Merced.

"The difficulty was lesser teams didn't want to play us because they knew the guys we had coming back from an 8-2 team," Scheidt said.

"The better teams didn't feel it was advantageous for them, either, because it wasn't a big win if they beat us."

The big boys can't say that anymore.

Two straight Central California Conference championships, an appearance in the Sac-Joaquin Section title game two years ago and a 31-5 record over the last three seasons make Merced an attractive opponent.

This time around, filling out the schedule wasn't a problem.

Teams like defending section champs Napa, Fresno Edison and Loomis Del Oro quickly signed two-years contracts.

The three teams combined to go 34-4-1 last season to give Merced a beastly pre-conference schedule.

"You might wish it wouldn't happen all at once," Scheidt said. "Those three teams jump out at you. I know they'll be prepared for us. But I know our guys can compete."

Merced should once again be knocking on the door for its first section title since 1990.

Merced almost ended the drought in a 37-36 loss to Vacaville in the 2006 section finale.

Merced was 11-0 before injuries to Cal-bound receiver Jarrett Sparks, quarterback Brandon Garcia and defensive back Jamichael Turner were finally too much to overcome in a 41-28 semifinal loss to Stockton St. Mary's last year.

"That was real tough," Merced safety Bernard Bolden said. "When a lot of us get together, we still talk about it. What if this guy played and that guy played?

"We want to go out there this year and get it back."

College recruiters shuffled in and out of Scheidt's classroom this off season like never before.

Bolden, defensive end Nathan Mayfield and tight end Kenny Cooper have been offered over 20 scholarships combined. Schools like Arizona, Nebraska and Colorado are after all three.

That doesn't even count running back Stephon Mathis, who rushed for 1,154 yards and 13 touchdowns despite missing three games because of an ankle injury.

"He's by far the best guy I've had back there since I've been at Merced," said Scheidt, whose in his 13th season.

"I know that's saying a lot. Obviously, Wendell was his brother. But in the terms of the way Stephon runs and the things he is doing -- Stephon is tremendous."

The key to Merced's success this year may be the play of quarterback Allen Huddleston.

Scheidt has made some tweaks to the offense to take advantage of Huddleston's athletic ability.

The senior spent the bulk of his summer playing in basketball tournaments across the country.

Merced will feature a spread look with Huddleston operating a lot out of a shotgun formation.

"Allen is the heart of our offense right now," Bolden said. "It's no show without Allen. He's one of the best athletes out there. He did pretty well in camp.

"He can run and he can throw. If he plays well, we'll be in good shape."

Last year, Huddleston was unsure if he wanted to play football. When he did decide to play, he was used as a quarterback, cornerback and a receiver.

This year, he knows he's coming in as the quarterback.

"This year, I'm more excited and into it," Huddleston said. "I find myself thinking about it a lot.

"Last year, I was kind of nonchalant about playing. Now, I'm ready to go into it full go.

"With Kenny, Bernard, (Eddie Beavers) and Stephon, my job is going to be easy."

The same can't be said, though, about that schedule.

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