State

Modesto Christian rolls to section title, eyes state crown

STOCKTON -- Isaiah Burse's crusade isn't over yet. Modesto Christian's dynamic quarterback hammered his name into history Friday night with an effort that was as impressive as any seen in the Stanislaus District.

"Let's keep playing," Burse shouted to his teammates as the final seconds rolled off the clock at Lincoln High, "Let's keep playing."

And the Crusaders will, though first they'll spend a couple days celebrating the school's first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section football title.

Burse and his Little Team That Could made sure of that, rolling up 581 yards offense and pounding Placer 61-40 in the Division 4 championship game. Placer has four times the enrollment of MC, but that didn't matter.

"We went after their best players, because we wanted to show that we're not afraid to go against anyone," said Kevin Roya, whose acrobatic, 27-yard TD catch with 3:34 to play all but sealed the win. "This is what we wanted from the start of the year, to win a section title. A bowl game? That's even better!"

Placer usually faced teams like Oakdale and Manteca in the playoffs, but the section's new playoff format meant the school of nearly 1,400 kids got to play MC, with an enrollment of 315.

But MC made up in quality what it lacked in quantity.

Though its key players rarely left the field, the Crusaders got stronger as the game progressed -- outscoring Placer 33-12 in the second half.

Though the first half ended tied 28-all, the Crusaders took momentum into halftime.

Before the half ended, Placer's Asher Gotzmer ran 63 yards for a TD to make it 28-28. MC got into a hole when a punt snap sailed over Burse's head and Placer took over at the 29 with 2:30 to go.

MC's defense, ravaged most of the half by Placer's quick-hitting Wing-T offense, stood its ground. Two sacks pushed Placer back to its 38, then MC sniffed out an attempted double-pass to kill Placer's drive.

The Hillmen used a similar play to beat Sonora last week, but MC was ready for it as cornerback Damien Bell-White stayed with his receiver.

MC (14-0) dominated the third quarter, scoring TDs on runs from Roya (22 and 7 yards) and Keaton Engle (9 yards). It failed on all three PATs -- a kick and two two-point attempts -- so it led 46-28 after three quarters.

Placer trimmed it to 46-24 on another Gotzmer run. The Hillmen then got right back in the game after recovering a Roya fumbled and quickly converting it into another TD from Gotzmer, but a failed PAT kick kept MC up 46-40.

It didn't take long for Roya to make up for his mistake.

With MC facing a second-and-12 at the Placer 27, Roya lined up wide right -- staring at Gotzmer, Placer's best player on both sides of the ball.

Burse faked an inside handoff, drawing Gotzmer a step toward the line, and that was all the opening Roya needed.

Roya sped past Gotzmer and to the right corner of the end zone, where Burse found him with a high pass. On the two-point conversion, Burse zinged a bullet to Roya to make it 54-40.

"We kept going buck sweep, buck sweep, and they kept getting closer to the line," Roya said. "They were expecting us to run it again, so it was a great time for the play.

"I had talked to coach a little earlier about it, and told him the play would be there."

As most of the plays were.

Burse wasn't flawless at the controls of the high-tempo, prolific Wing-T that includes pieces of the spread and Wildcat, but he was pretty close.

He completed 8 of 10 passes for 187 yards, including a 48-yard TD to David Sjelin on the second play of the game.

His lone error was an interception he threw in the end zone in the second quarter, but he learned from the play.

In the third quarter, a near-identical situation presented itself -- with Burse scrambling on fourth-and-5 at the Placer 30. Instead of forcing a pass into tight coverage, he tucked it away and took off.

With Evan Schwartz throwing a key block, Burse got to the first down marker and kept going, breaking tackles and spinning off defenders until he reached the 7. Roya scored on the next play, cutting up the middle, and MC had its 40-28 lead -- and Placer would never catch up.

Burse was equally effective running the ball, with 18 carries for 144 yards -- giving him 331 yards offense. He got lots of help from his teammates:

Roya had three catches for 68 yards and 14 carries for 120 yards, and had three TDs.

Tight end Raymond Nelson, a 6-foot-4 target who bowled over plenty of Placer defenders, had three catches for 75 yards. Each of his receptions came at key times.

Engle, picking up the slack created by Sjelin's ailing ankle, had 10 runs for 65 yards and two TDs. He had been tossed from last week's semifinal win over Central Catholic -- and that normally means missing the next game, too. MC successfully appealed the decision, giving them one more playmaker.

While the offense got much of the credit -- and after scoring 61 points against a team that was 12-1 and among one of the best defensive squads in the Sacramento region -- MC's defense held its own in the final eight minutes.

Twice MC foiled Placer's comeback bid with interceptions, taking the ball away from Gotzmer on both plays.

The first was by Aaron Brown, who was locked in man-to-man coverage with Gotzmer on the right side. He outjumped Placer's star at the 10, ripping the ball out of his hands.

Later, it was Dustin Hayes who went high to take another pass intended for Gotzmer. His play near midfield put the Crusaders' offense back on the field -- drawing a big groan from Placer's crowd.

The Crusaders quickly moved down the field and eventually scored the final TD on Engel's 12-yard run.

That sent the faithful into a frenzy and ended a string of four appearances in the section final without a victory.

"This is ours now," said Burse, looking toward the stands. "For coach, my teammates, everyone up there. We're all going to enjoy this."

Contact Estrada at 578-2301 or restrada@modbee.com

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