Kenny Cooper remembers standing and watching while the Christmas parade made its way through downtown Merced two years ago.
Cooper's thoughts were in Stockton, where his Merced teammates lost 37-36 to Vacaville in a stomach-turning Sac-Joaquin Section title game.
An altercation with a teammate at practice during the week led to Cooper's absence in Stockton.
"I remember them announcing that Merced was playing in the section title game at the parade," Cooper said.
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"A lot of people in town knew what happened. I felt bad I wasn't with my team.
"I've worked hard to stay out of trouble. I want to be there when my team needs me."
Two years later, Cooper and Merced are just one win away from another section title game appearance.
Only tonight's Sac-Joaquin Section semifinal game against Stockton St. Mary's stands in their way.
It just so happens that St. Mary's was the team to stop Merced's playoff run last year with a 41-28 loss.
"I want to get Kenny a section title ring so bad," teammate Eddie Beavers said. "I came up for the playoffs that year as a sophomore, but I didn't get to play.
"Kenny played the whole year, and we probably would have won if he played.
"He didn't get that opportunity and I want to make sure he does this time."
Cooper and Beavers' contributions are often overlooked.
Two talented, physical receivers who are sometimes forgotten about in a run-first attack.
"I know those guys get frustrated at times because there's only one ball," Merced coach Rob Scheidt said.
"But they've handled the situation well. If you look at a lot of our big plays, it's because of them blocking down field on either side."
Neither player has eye-popping stats.
Cooper has hauled in 24 catches for 517 yards and seven touchdowns.
Beavers has 19 catches for 418 and four touchdowns.
However, Merced wouldn't still be playing if it weren't for their heroics in back-to-back weeks in Turlock.
First, it was Beavers out-jumping a Turlock defender to pull in a last-minute touchdown to propel Merced to a win.
"I'm always going to remember that moment," Beavers said. "That whole game I was telling Allen (Huddleston) to just throw it up. I won't let you down."
Cooper followed that up the next week by winning another jump ball in the end zone to beat Pitman in the final minute.
"I think teams underestimate us," Cooper said. "They look at me and see I'm big, but they don't think I'm fast.
"They probably think the same about (Beavers).
"We both can make plays. We both can go up and get the ball."
There's a good chance the receiver duo could be featured more tonight.
St. Mary's packed the line of scrimmage last year, almost daring Merced to throw.
"We're ready," Beavers said. "I haven't been able to sleep since Saturday.
"All I do is think about the game, St. Mary's and getting revenge."
If not, the whole team may be watching the Christmas parade this year.