Coming into the playoffs, the Merced High football team had played just one team this season in Downey that had kept pace with the Bears offense.
Unable to stop River Valley’s wing-t offense on Friday, the Bears found themselves in another shootout. However, this time, the Falcons ground attack was too much as No. 10 River Valley pulled off a shocking 45-40 upset of the No. 3 seed Merced in the quarterfinals of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs on Friday night at Veterans Stadium.
The Falcons racked up 320 yards on the ground and the River Valley defense forced the Bears to turn the ball over on the downs on their final drive to earn their way into a semifinal matchup with No. 2 Placer (11-0) next week.
“For me, the thing is I’m always nervous going into a playoff game,” said Merced coach Rob Scheidt. “I don’t think the kids realize in four hours we can be moving on our this can come to an end. After doing this for 28 years, you the feeling and how horrible this feels.”
Merced’s season really fell in jeopardy with 7 minutes left in the first quarter. That’s when a simple pass to Bears senior Xavier Stewart changed the game.
Stewart caught the pass near the Merced sideline. With a River Valley defender latched out to his foot, the Merced star tried to shake free, before lunging forward to pick up a first down.
However, in the process Stewart injured his right ankle. He spent much of the night trying to work his way back on the field, testing it by jogging near the bench on the Bears sideline. After sitting out the rest of the first half except for going in as a holder on an extra-point attempt, Stewart started the second half, but couldn’t run on the ankle.
The Bears had to play without the player who the Central California Conference coaches selected as the Best Offensive Player after catching at least one touchdown in every game this season and finishing with 843 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns.
“Losing Xavier was huge,” Scheidt said. “He’s a multiple position player. You don’t want to think about losing him. When it does happen, we struggled to replace him.”
Without Stewart on defense playing outside linebacker or defensive end, the Bears struggled containing River Valley’s sweeps and outside running game.
Rex Baker and Evan Strickland slashed up Merced’s defense with outside runs, Baker finished with 112 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. Strickland added 18 carries for 110 yards and one touchdown.
Fullback Niko Tejada added 89 yards rushing on 19 tackles.
“We all expected to do great,” said Merced senior Dhameer Warren. “We knew this team was good and they were going to come in playing hard.”
The Falcons also played with more and more confidence as the game got late and they had the lead.
The Bears (10-1) went back and forth as Warren scored three rushing touchdowns and finished with 81 yards on seven carries.
Merced scored on the opening possession of the second half as Junior Garcia connected with Ezra Morales for a 52-yard touchdown to give the Bears a 27-24 lead with 8:33 left in the third quarter.
The Falcons answered back as Strickland hauled in his second touchdown of the game with a 28-yard scoring strike to give River Valley a 31-27 lead with 4:34 left in the third quarter.
The Falcons hurt the Bears with some timely pass plays and took advantage of three blown coverages by the Merced defense that resulted in three touchdown passes by River Valley quarterback Dawson McPeak. Strickland finished with 111 receiving yards on three catches as he went over the century mark in receiving and rushing.
“Our (defensive backs) were confused at times,” Warren said. “Those three touchdowns hurt us.”
The Bears answered back in the third as Desmond Thompson broke free for a 41-yard run to help set up Warren’s third touchdown of the game on a 4-yard burst over the goal line that gave Merced a 33-31 lead with 4:31 left in the third quarter.
Stewart wasn’t the only one hurt for Merced. During one offensive play, Stewart, Warren, Thompson and the CCC’s top offensive lineman Clifford Johnson were all on the Bears’ sideline with various injuries. Thompson and Johnson were both in and out of the lineup in the second half.
The Falcons answered as Johnny Murguia’s long kickoff return set up the RV offense at the Merced 37-yard line. Seven plays later, Baker scored on a sweep play from 12 yards out to regain the lead for the Falcons at 38-33.
River Valley’s Isayah Osborne then recovered an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff to set up the Falcons at the Merced 45-yard line. Six rushing plays later River Valley extended the lead to 45-33 with 10:57 left after a Baker 3-yard touchdown run.
The Bears rallied late as Thompson scored on a 3-yard run to cut the lead to 45-40 with 5 minutes left.
Scheidt opted against an onside attempt and kicked it deep. River Valley was able to run milk the clock down to 1:29 before the Merced defense came up with a big fourth-down stop at the Bears’ 9-yard line.
The Bears took over, but Garcia, who completed 13 of 28 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns, misfired on four straight passes to turn the ball over on downs.
River Valley took three knees to finish off the biggest upset in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs so far this season.
Scheidt gathered his players for one final postgame talk.
“Thank you for an awesome season,” Scheidt said. “You guys have been nothing but a blessing....Don’t underestimate the run you went on this season.”