Gilliam propels Merced past Atwater
Merced High lost two key players in running back Andre Barnett and quarterback Dhameer Warren to injuries in the first half on Friday night against Atwater.
That meant Elijah Gilliam and Junior Garcia were pushed into the spotlight.
Neither flinched as Gilliam carried the ball 17 times for 133 yards and four touchdowns and Garcia engineered four scoring drives, after taking over for Warren in the second quarter, as the Bears defeated the Falcons 44-13 in the 48th annual Santa Fe Bowl at Veterans Stadium.
The win was the Bears’ eighth consecutive victory over the Falcons to extend their all-time lead in the series to 34-14.
“It was a little bit scary tonight,” said Merced coach Rob Scheidt, whose team improved to 2-4 overall and 1-1 in the Central California Conference this season. “Fortunately we played really good defense tonight. I’m proud of Junior. We were very cautious with Dhameer. Once we had that lead it was no use rushing him back in.”
The Bears lost Barnett on the second offensive series of the game.
The sophomore Gilliam made an immediate impact on his first carry, breaking free for a 21-yard touchdown run to give Merced a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Gilliam is the younger brother of former Bears’ star Ulonzo Gilliam, who was Sun-Star Player of the Year last season and is now at UC Davis.
The younger Gilliam says there is no pressure filling his brother’s shoes.
“Not at all,” Elijah said. “It keeps me pushing myself daily. I want to work every chance I get so I can be like my brother. I want to do Division I just like him.”
Gilliam showed a glimpse of the future as he scored on touchdown runs of 12, 23 and 1 yard in the game to help the Bears blow out Atwater (1-4, 0-1).
“He’s a young guy and we’ve been playing him on defense first,” Scheidt said. “He gets some looks on offense. That’s the process with a lot of our sophomores. We concentrate on one side at the beginning and sprinkle them in on the other side. We think he’s going to be a great player.”
Garcia was also effective filling in for Warren.
Garcia’s one touchdown pass came on the final play of the first half as he threw a ball in the end zone that Xavier Stewart went up and got over an Atwater defender for a 17-yard touchdown that gave the Bears a 24-7 lead at intermission.
Scheidt said Warren may have been able to play in the second half, but there was no need to risk it with a substantial lead.
“Once we scored again, at that point, Junior has been a good teammate, lets let him finish this one,” Scheidt said. “In Junior’s defense, most of his reps in practice are scout reps (running the other team’s offense). He hasn’t gotten a lot of reps with the team.”
Garcia completed 8 of 12 passes for 110 yards.
The Bears defense also made Scheidt’s decision to hold Warren out easier. After surrendering 98 points in the last two losses to Madera and Pitman, Merced’s defense held the Falcons to just 133 yards of offense.
Bears safety Ronnie Miranda also helped with the scoring by returning an interception 45 yards for a touchdown that gave Merced a 38-7 lead late in the third quarter.
The lone bright spot for the Falcons was running back Charles Jackson, who broke a 48-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter and finished with 108 yards on 19 carries.
“I asked our guys to be resilient this week,” Scheidt said. “Two weeks in a row we had gut-wrenching, heart-breaking losses. Our guys came back and gave a great effort in practice this week. I was proud of them today. They were quiet during our team meal. They were quiet on the bus ride here. They respected the process.”