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Escape artists: Merced wraps up CCC title with another wild finish in Turlock

TURLOCK -- The call from the sideline was for Allen Huddleston to spike the ball to stop the clock.

But the Merced quarterback had other ideas.

Huddleston faked the spike and lofted a pass into the end zone for Kenny Cooper.

The 6-foot-4 receiver out-jumped Pitman's 6-2 cornerback Robert Beale and tipped the ball into the air.

Cooper then hauled in the catch on his way to the ground for a touchdown with 39 seconds remaining, propelling Merced to a 26-21 victory over Pitman on Friday night.

For the second straight week, Merced escaped Joe Debely field with a dramatic late-game comeback, this one finishing off a perfect run through the Central California Conference.

"Before the snap, I looked out at Kenny and told him to run a 19 route," said Huddleston, who missed the entire second quarter with a knee injury.

"I faked the spike and just threw it up. He made a great play on the ball."

Cooper's play came in the same end zone where teammate Eddie Beavers made a circus catch to beat Turlock a week ago.

"I felt I had to make a play," said Cooper, who lost a jump ball situation against Beale in the end zone earlier in the fourth quarter.

"I knew it was do or die. I had to go for it. I owed my quarterback."

Cooper's catch sent Merced's sideline and fans into a frenzy, as Rob Scheidt's team clinched the CCC's top seed and will be at home for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.

"We would have felt wronged if we had to leave Merced," Scheidt said. "We talked about it all week.

"Stadium '76 and Don Odishoo Field is our home and we wanted to get back home."

Merced (6-0 CCC, 9-1) will open the playoffs against the No. 2 team from San Joaquin Athletic Association, most likely Tracy.

The prospect of opening the playoffs on the road at Stockton St. Mary's looked like a very real possibility early in the second half.

Merced struggled to stop Pitman's Wing-T attack in the second and third quarters.

Fullback Marcus Sanders (173 rushing yards) scored two second-quarter touchdowns to give Pitman a 14-12 lead at halftime.

Pitman quarterback Tyler Snodgrass then hit Beale with a 32-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 21-12.

Meanwhile, Merced dealt with injuries to Bernard Bolden, Huddleston, Cooper and Beavers throughout the game.

"You can't give up," Cooper said. "Anything can happen. That's why you play it out until the end."

Stephon Mathis started the comeback with a 45-yard touchdown run.

Mathis, who scored on a 65-yard run in the first quarter, finished with 206 yards on 14 carries.

Huddleston ran in the two-point conversion to cut the lead to 21-20 with 32 seconds left in the third quarter.

Merced then failed to cash in on great field position after a shanked punt and a Pitman fumble early in the fourth quarter.

Finally, Huddleston led Merced on a 64-yard scoring drive.

He hooked up with Beavers on a key fourth-down catch and twice found Tyler Johnson for big receptions on the drive before Cooper's heroics.

"Fourth and nine...

"One dropped ball and all of a sudden, we've got to think about something different," Scheidt said.

"We were all set to go home (for the playoffs). Thankfully, we got it done."

At Turlock

MERCED 6 6 8 6 -- 26

TURLOCK 0 14 7 - -- 21

First Quarter

MER -- Bernard Bolden 53 run (kick failed)

Second Quarter

MER -- Stephon Mathis 65 run (kick failed)

PIT -- Marcus Sanders 5 run (Tyler Harris kick)

PIT -- Sanders 49 run (Harris kick)

Third Quarter

PIT -- Robert Beale 32 pass from Tyler Snodgrass (Harris kick)

MER -- Mathis 45 run (Allen Huddleston run)

MER -- Kenny Cooper 11 pass from Huddleston (run failed).

Records: Pitman 4-2 CCC, 7-3 overall; Merced 6-0, 9-1.

JV -- Pitman 27-20.