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All or nothing for Merced seniors

Kenny Cooper has learned not to take anything for granted.

Cooper was a sophomore on the Merced football team that reached the Sac-Joaquin Section title game and fell short against Vacaville two years ago.

Cooper thought he'd make an annual visit back to the University of the Pacific his final two years at Merced.

"Yeah, I did think it would be easy to make it back," Cooper said. "I thought we had the same amount of talent last year.

"At the end of the year, we just weren't healthy. It was more than just star players being hurt. We had a lot of people playing different positions.

"I know what's on the line tonight. I know how it feels to lose in the playoffs."

Cooper will do whatever he has to do to help Merced (9-1) make another deep run in the playoffs.

The journey starts tonight at Stadium '76 against Tracy (7-3).

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

For the third straight year, Merced is considered one of the favorites to win a section title.

Cooper knows it's his last shot.

"It's very important to me," he said. "It would mean a lot for our school and our community.

"It's kind of been expected with the talent we have. I try not to even think about losing.

"I don't want any doubt to creep into my mind."

Merced may be better prepared for the playoffs this season.

Cooper and company barely broke a sweat in winning Central California Conference titles the last two years.

This season, it took a pair of last-minute wins in the final two weeks against Turlock and Pitman to wrap up the crown.

"The last two weeks have helped prepare us better for the playoffs," Scheidt said.

"Instead of having our guys sitting around at the end of the year and suddenly trying to get revved up for the playoffs, our guys are ready to go."

In Tracy, Scheidt's boys will have to shut down a solid rushing attack led by the fleet-footed Depray Celestine and bulldozing fullback Jordan Strong.

Meanwhile, Tracy will have its hands full with Merced's Stephon Mathis.

The senior running back has shredded defenses for 1,669 yards and 23 touchdowns.

"We weren't healthy at the end of last year, so there's a lot of regret from the guys that were with us last year," Scheidt said.

"The guys that were sophomores on our team two years ago, know how tough the road is and they can help prepare our younger guys.

"Everyone wants to keep playing."

Players like Cooper want to get another shot at UOP.