If it's any consolation to Escalon High, Patterson has used the Cougars as its template.
That probably won't salve the wound opened last fall when the Tigers advanced to their first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section V final by twice stopping Escalon at the 1-yard line as time expired. Nor is it a comfort that Patterson -- for many years little more than a workout for Escalon -- has humbled the Cougars three times in the last five meetings.
Then again, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
"They (Escalon) are the standard for what we want to be," said Rob Cozart, the Tigers' coach and orchestrator of Patterson's five-year turnaround from pack-runner to powerhouse. "They are the standard for public small-schools football in the state, the valley, everywhere. It (last year's playoff win) was the turning point for us."
Tonight's matchup rekindles the valley's hottest new rivalry. It also reminds fans, especially followers of down-on-their-luck programs, that there is always hope.
For them, the Patterson Tigers are their heroes.
Since Cozart came on board, the Tigers have done thus: Won 11 games for the first time (2007), advanced to the section final for the first time ('07), qualified for the playoffs three consecutive years for the first time ('05, '06 and '07), and completed a $1.3 million upgrading of its charming palm-tree decorated stadium.
How did it all happen so fast, you ask?
It started with a talented and energized change-agent in Cozart, whose arrival coincided with the town's dramatic population spike. Throw in a $500,000 commitment from the school district along with major outreach from civic organizations and volunteers, and here is the result -- a school and a football program on the move.
Mayor Becky Campo, a regular at football games whose son plays for the Patterson freshmen, remains pleasantly surprised by the Tigers' new stripes. She still can't believe how Cozart coaxed the City of Patterson into a $300,000 donation toward the stadium. For his hustle, Cozart received the 2007 Mayor's Award.
"We were very reluctant at first, but he was persistent," Campo recalled. "His part of the deal was to get it done quick. I was shocked he finished the job in only one year. It was a community effort, but if it hadn't been for his dream and his vision, it probably wouldn't have happened."
Cozart and his staff did not wave magic wands. Remaking the Tigers was not easy. Cozart's 2003 team, his first, won only three games and ended the season with only 23 players in uniform.
Fast-forward to this month. Cozart was forced to cut 23 players after about 70 turned out. The Tigers built step by step. Two years ago, Modesto Christian scored with 32 seconds left to deny the Tigers their first section final, a goal they finally achieved last year.
Patterson also has been assisted by an unprecedented population bump that began in the late 1990s. Since then, the numbers have grown to nearly 21,000 -- an 80-percent increase this decade -- as homes creep closer and closer to Interstate 5. Its affordable housing and close proximity to the East Bay spurred growth.
Meanwhile, the high school enrollment also mushroomed, opening this year with 1,666, according to state CIF figures.
"We just grew too fast. There were growing pains," said David Stubbs, Patterson's second-year principal. "We are at a point now where the community, the faculty and the students have turned it all into a positive. There is strength in diversity. There are a lot of different points of view in this town, and it's been nothing but beneficial."
For its part, the football program bridged the school's traditions with its new forward lean. The Tigers, a longtime member of the Trans-Valley League, currently compete in the Western Athletic Conference. But even now, administrators attend Valley Oak League meetings. The VOL will be Patterson's eventual destination, perhaps as soon as two years.
Cozart already has upgraded his schedule. Sierra, a VOL affiliate from Manteca, comes to Patterson next week, followed by games against Downey and Modesto.
"We tried to get a game against Oakdale two years ago, and we've been scrimmaging against Ceres," Cozart said. "We're trying to get ready for it (the VOL), because we know it's going to happen."
There is only one bit of unfinished business -- winning the WAC. The Tigers still haven't negotiated that barrier, thanks to the presence of Central Catholic.
Regardless, Patterson's progress has both surprised and inspired many observers. Carl Selee, the former Patterson coach and now a resident of Boise, Idaho, dined with the team the night before the Tigers lost to Central in the '07 section title game.
"They've got a young man in there (Cozart) who's ambitious. That helps," said Turlock's Tex Pace, 90, a former football referee who lived in Patterson for 50 years. "What he's done is amazing. He's a promoter, too."
For all the changes, Patterson still welcomes a link to its past. Re-enter Escalon and a game neither school will erase from its schedule. Daniel Reza, the Patterson quarterback, is the latest of a family chain that has dualed against the Cougars for three decades.
"They're always good. We're always good. We always expect to have a good game," Reza said. "I'm really proud to be a part of it."
Expect a playoff atmosphere, a treat for Week 2, tonight at Escalon's Engel Field. The controlled growth practiced by Escalon might clash with Patterson's rapid expansion, but check out the similarities on the football field -- homegrown coaches, attention to detail and, yes, winning. In that way, Escalon can accept Patterson's arrival as a compliment.
"We've got to keep this rivalry going," Cozart said. "Even if it's nonleague, it's good for both of us, and it gets us better whether you win or lose."
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.