The Merced High football team got the ball with everything on the line.
The outright Central California Conference title. A home playoff game. Its 18th consecutive league victory.
Needing to go 65 yards in the final minute, the Bears star-studded offense did just that, capping the drive with a short pass from Allen Huddleston to Kenny Cooper in a 26-21 victory over Pitman on Friday night at Joe Debely Stadium.
Cooper's score gave Merced its first lead in the second half against a scrappy Pitman team. It also gave the Bears (9-1, 7-0) the CCC crown. They'll open the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs next week at home against the San Joaquin Athletic Association runner-up, which will be decided today.
Pitman (7-3, 4-2) finished in a three-way tie for second place with Los Banos and Turlock. Los Banos earned the CCC's second playoff berth due to the section tiebreaker. Pitman's season is over.
"It was clutch time, somebody had to make a play," Cooper said. "It was my turn."
Trailing 21-20 late in the fourth quarter, Merced was down to its final possession. Tight end Tyler Johnson caught two key passes, for 28 and 17 yards, from Huddleston in the drive. And on fourth-and-9, receiver Eddie Beavers caught a 16-yard pass to the Pitman 11.
One play later, Huddleston lobbed a pass to Cooper on the left. He outmuscled his defender, grabbing the tipped pass for the final touchdown.
"To win it like this makes it especially big," Huddleston said. "Kenny made the play."
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The Bears marched up and down the field much of the night, with running back Stephon Mathis (209 rushing yards) scoring on two long touchdown runs.
But the Pride's Wing-T attack befuddled the Bears' defense for much of the night. Marcus Sanders led Pitman with 174 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
"Merced's a great team," Pitman coach Brandon Harris said. "To have them on the ropes until the final 39 seconds is a testament to our guys."
It was the third consecutive CCC championship for the Bears.
"I don't think people understand just how tough that is," Merced coach Rob Scheidt said. "I'm really proud of these guys. They showed a lot of fortitude."
Merced's first-round playoff opponent will be either Lincoln of Stockton or Tracy. They'll play at Merced College next week.
"We've got a great home crowd, and we don't have to travel that day," Huddleston said. "It's real big."
After the game, Cooper hoisted Beavers onto his shoulders, carrying him around the field. Beavers made several big plays (four receptions, 111 yards) while Cooper saved his best for last.
"This is my third CCC title; it feels great," Cooper said. "Now I need to get a ring to go with it."
That would be a section championship ring.
"That's been our goal since the beginning," Huddleston said. "UOP. The section title."
Bee staff writer Will DeBoard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.