Merced gets shot at revenge

Merced High has been looking forward to this game for a year, a chance to avenge a season-ending loss to St. Mary's.

The Bears appeared headed to a second consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section Division I final last fall before being upset 41-28 in the quarterfinals.

It was the Bears' lone loss in 2007, and their worst game.

Quarterback Brandon Garcia had a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand and Merced suffered five turnovers, with the Rams bringing back two for touchdowns.

This time the two are meeting in a semifinal -- kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. at Merced College -- with the winner advancing to the Dec. 13 section final at the University of the Pacific.

It's the third year in a row Merced and St. Mary's will meet in the playoffs: Merced was a 31-21 winner in their first-round meeting in 2006.

Merced has a key injury. A sprained ankle kept tailback Stephon Mathis (1,832 yards, 24 TDs) out of Friday's 22-14 win over Johansen, but the Bears have a super-sub in Bernard Bolden.

One of the state's top defensive backs, Bolden has compiled 29 carries for 227 yards and a TD the last two weeks.

Of course, a healthy Mathis will allow coach Rob Scheidt to delve much deeper into his playbook and force the Rams' defense to stretch itself thin.

St. Mary's earned its berth by beating Lincoln 32-31 on Cody Vaz's TD pass with 2:42 remaining. Vaz, headed to Oregon State, was 17 of 25 for 275 yards and two touchdowns.

A SECOND CHANCE -- It's not often you get a second opportunity to play a foe twice in a season, unless you're Hilmar. The Yellowjackets face a familiar foe for the second week in a row when they play Central Catholic for the Division V title Saturday at UOP.

Hilmar's 34-7 win over Western Athletic Conference rival Patterson in Friday's semifinal was its second in three weeks, and more convincing than its 13-10 win in Week 10.

The 'Jackets lost 23-7 to Central Catholic in Week 7, and it was Central's passing attack that won the game. Hilmar allows just 8.5 points per game and surrendered its season high in the loss to Central.

This game could be a shootout, with Hilmar piling up 89 points and 898 yards in two playoff wins. Central has outscored its playoff foes 64-14.

Quarterback Dylan Swartz, 16 of 23 for 258 yards and two TDs in his first meeting with Hilmar, was 13 of 17 for 210 yards and three TDs in a surprisingly easy 38-6 win over Escalon in Friday's semifinal.

EARLY EXIT -- Losses have been few and far between for Oakdale in the last decade, but one of its most disappointing was Friday's 27-14 loss to Placer. The D-IV opener was delayed for a week, and the foe changed, due to a legal battle over a player's eligibility.

Oakdale, which ran like a machine while winning eight in a row, was noticeably off its game. A penalty and a fumble killed potential TD drives inside the 10, Tanner Combs had two interceptions and his short throws sailed high, and the secondary couldn't resist the urge to bite on play-action fakes -- leading to two TDs.

Oakdale wasn't looking for excuses afterward, refusing to blame the off-field antics or a reversed call that denied it a TD in the fourth quarter. As Isaiah Mendez-Borba was tackled near the goal line, the ball popped loose and rolled out of bounds before a Placer player could gain possession.

The first official said it was out of bounds and Oakdale would retain possession. But a second official ran over and said the ball was inbounds, giving possession to Placer.

Soon there were four officials discussing the play and, after raised voices in their huddle, one emerged and said that Placer would get the ball.

LACK OF EQUITY -- No surprise that Marysville and Lindurst swept Southern League entries Le Grand and Mariposa in the D-VI semifinals.

Lindhurst and Marysville have a combined enrollment of 2,280, while Le Grand and Mariposa have 1,165 -- yet the section has said that the four are competitive equals.

Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at or 578-2300.