Football is a game of loud sounds and heart-stopping action.
But in this tiny locker room just west of Don Odishoo Field, two hours before kickoff, the Merced football team sits in a vacuum.
The space smells of baby powder and sweat -- an odd concoction, to be sure.
And it's quiet.
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The only sounds are those coming from buttons snapping into place and the vent vibrating overhead.
And it's meant to be that way.
As a small group of players in the far corner breach the code of silence, Merced senior Bernard Bolden looks up and fires a scowl in their direction.
This is serious.
This is a shot at Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship.
This is St. Mary's -- a war Merced had waited to wage for almost a year. A war Merced had wanted from the very start.
An hour outside of kickoff, the coaches finally break the bubble, filing into the locker room, cutting a path through the bags, helmets and shoulder pads.
Assistant coach Jake Messina sets the mood with a pregame delivery that leaves everyone tingling with adrenaline -- including this fly-on-the-wall sports reporter.
And then they were off, two long rows of black and orange, striding toward the field, pinky fingers interlocked.
As they left the locker room, walking toward a foggy and uncertain future, a sign met them near the door.
It was a quote from a master motivator, a football God -- Green Bay's Vince Lombardi.
"We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect.
"But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process... We will catch excellence."
This is where Merced's journey began on Friday night -- chasing perfection, hoping to grab excellence.
And unfortunately, this is where it ended.
St. Mary's won another yo-yo Sac-Joaquin Section playoff game at Merced College -- its second in two seasons -- mixing the run and the pass to near perfection in the second half.
The final score...
St. Mary's 35, Merced 24.
Ray Guyton led a three-pronged attack that bullied Merced's defense, punishing an undersized linebacking corps with downhill runs right up the gut.
Guyton scored two touchdowns, punctuating his last with 7:57 left in the third quarter with a chest thump.
Maurice Howze tacked on the first score and fullback Jordan Davis added another.
And then there was Cody Vaz, the kid with the million-dollar arm and Division-I scholarship.
Vaz carved up the Merced secondary like a Christmas ham, completing 19 of 23 passes for 248 yards and the dagger -- a 5-yard rocket to wide receiver Louie Lechich with 7:11 left in the game.
But ultimately, it was Merced -- a team so poised and sure of itself hours earlier -- that victimized itself throughout.
There were the three straight false start penalties and six in all.
There was a holding call that negated a third-quarter interception by Bolden.
And then there were the personnel blunders and wasted timeouts -- Merced entered the fourth quarter of a very winnable game with just one timeout.
Merced left its home field on Friday night disappointed and heart broken; once again a loser to St. Mary's on the doorstep of a section title.
Bolden sat near the 30-yard line, his brilliant four-year career flashing before his eyes.
Stephon Mathis wandered aimlessly through a sea of well-wishers, tears streaming down his face.
And then there was coach Rob Scheidt, who wrapped Andy Saeteurn in his arms and whispered into his ear, "I love you, man."
Think about that for a second before you curse St. Mary's or opportunity lost.
Now remember that quote -- that one hanging on the locker room wall.
For all its mistakes and goofs, Merced scraped and clawed on Friday night, holding onto every last thread of hope.
Scheidt's boys chased perfection on Friday night. They chased excellence.
And that's all anyone -- you, me or Rob -- could ask for.
James Burns is the sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.