Jarrett Sparks knew it was a chance to shine on a big stage.
Merced opened the season against Los Angeles Crenshaw and a pair of future Arizona State receivers in Kemonte Bateman and Clint Floyd.
But it was Sparks who had everyone talking.
The Merced senior scored two touchdowns, including a 79-yard kickoff return to start the second half, to highlight Merced's 21-14 victory.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The game served as a springboard for both Sparks and Merced.
Sparks went on to lead Merced to a second straight Central California Conference championship.
He finished with 42 catches for 949 yards and 14 touchdowns -- despite missing Merced's two playoff games with mononucleosis -- and was named the CCC most valuable player.
The Cal-bound receiver is also the Sun-Star Football Player of the Year.
"I was looking forward to the Crenshaw game," Sparks said. "There was a lot of talk about those two guys.
"But I had seen them at camps and competed against them. I knew I could play with them.
"It was a chance to show that players from this area we're just as good or better."
Sparks' combination of speed and power made the 6-foot-3, 215-pound target nearly impossible to cover for high school cornerbacks.
"He's a man against boys," Los Banos coach Dennis Stubbs said. "There have been very few players during all my years of coaching where, when you look on the field at the players on the other team, you see someone who is head and shoulders better than anyone on the field.
"He's one of those guys.
"I remember looking at De La Salle when I was a DB coach at Merced. I saw Amani Toomer warming up on the field at Stadium '76.
"You could tell he was a total class above. Wendell Mathis was the same way."
After receiving scholarship offers from five Pac-10 schools last spring, Sparks was a household name coming into this season.
Many fans came out just to see the future Division I receiver.
"It was a lot of pressure," Sparks said. "The thing about playing receiver is just that because you don't catch a lot of balls or score touchdowns, it doesn't mean you had a bad game.
"Sometimes nobody knows but you and your coaches."
For his opponents, this was their chance to shine against Jarrett Sparks.
"There were some guys that said things," Sparks said. "I dropped a pass against Sonora and one of their guys said, 'That doesn't look like Division I to me.'
"I started laughing. Most of the time, it was just compliments like, 'Man, you're good.' "
Merced coach Rob Scheidt marveled at the way Sparks handled everything this year.
"One thing that some people misread about Jarrett is that he's a quiet kid," Scheidt said.
"He doesn't let a lot of people in. It's nice to see for a change, with all the boisterous athletes who want to talk about themselves.
"He handled his success with humility and maturity."
When Sparks wasn't hauling in touchdowns, he could be seen springing big runs for Merced running backs Stephon Mathis and Bernard Bolden with his bruising blocks.
"It got to the point where we'd move him around almost like an H-back," Scheidt said. "He was almost like a fullback on some plays. He was really the lead blocker.
"Not much is talked about his work ethic. Everybody thinks he's just gifted -- and he is -- but he really works hard all the time."
That's why it was so tough for Sparks to be on the sideline during the playoffs.
"It was pretty tough watching," Sparks said. "But my future is more important than one or two games.
"That's how I tried to look at it."
There's no doubt Sparks' future will give him the opportunity to shine on bigger stages.
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-star sports reporter. He can be reached at via e-mail at email@example.com.