Merced High's hosting its first football game on campus both of the city's teams are home this week and neither wants to play Thursday but the bigger news is the Bears' opponent.
Merced will see a Modesto City School for the first time since beating Johansen 22-14 in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 quarters in 2008. Then the Bears will play another in two weeks.
It's quite a turnaround for a program that had to travel the Central Valley looking for games the last few years.
Merced's early season foes had included Grant, Edison of Fresno, Paradise, Del Oro and Napa which helps explain why it hasn't been to the playoffs since 2008.
"We are excited to play a local schedule," said coach Rob Scheidt, whose Bears host Downey Friday and get Enochs Sept. 14 at Golden Valley High. "Scheduling can be tricky due to the two-year contract and availability of games. A few years back we just couldn't get return phone calls."
Most local schools worried about the Bears' reputation for being physical and fast, and who wants to risk a loss with six wins being a magic number for getting into the playoffs? Better to schedule a softer foe and enjoy the comfortable win, many felt.
Merced and the Modesto schools shared a conference for decades, but the Central California Conference split in 2004. Schools in Merced, Atwater and Turlock stayed to form a six-team CCC, and the five Modesto schools and Ceres joined to create the Modesto Metro Conference.
Merced is 9-1 vs. the MMC since 2004. The loss was 13-3 to Modesto in early 2004 and Merced has been unbeaten since 7-0 in the regular season, 2-0 in playoff games.
Modesto, Johansen and Downey faced the Bears in 2004 and '05, then Beyer met Merced in 2006 and '07 the last year an MMC school put Merced on its schedule.
That ended when Downey coach Jeremy Plaa agreed to put Merced on his schedule, a demanding docket that includes Central Catholic.
"They are just huge up front, very athletic, and extremely aggressive. They will be much better than GV obviously," said Plaa, whose club beat GV 49-0 last week.
The game pits two of the Stanislaus District's top QBs: A pure passer in Aaron Zwahlen and a dual-threat in Merced's Eli Gutierrez. They combined for 624 yards and 11 TDs in their openers.
"I wanted to upgrade our preseason, so that is why we went with Merced and CC," said Plaa, whose club played Central Valley and Modesto Christian in those slots last season. "It is a huge opportunity. It is the type of team we must beat to have success in the playoffs."
The good news is Modesto football has improved, and both Downey and Enochs are well prepared. Downey goes into Friday a favorite, and Enochs is a "pick 'em."
When's the last time the district hosted two of the nation's elite prospects? Placer brings all-everything defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes to Central Catholic Friday, where he'll run into Raiders tight end John Mundt. It's not the last time they'll face each other.
Vanderdoes has committed to USC, while Mundt said he will sign with Oregon. Their colleges are expected to play for the Pac-12 title this fall and the next few years.
Central has its strongest team in years, though last week's news that Rey Vega is ineligible for six weeks is a hit. The problem is Placer is big and physical like Central, fast like Central
and it's even more athletic.
We often talk of Merced's schedule, but I can't think of a coach other than Roger Canepa who faces such a demanding docket the next month state-ranked Placer, St. Mary's, Downey and Los Banos. Hard to imagine Central winning more than two of its next four games.
There's plenty of risk and reward that goes with playing in a showcase game early in the season. Oakdale trips to Southern California Friday to face Oceanside in the Battle for Veterans, one of four games pitting NorCal vs. SoCal schools.
It's the second week in a row Sacramento powers Del Oro and Granite Bay will be in the event: State No. 4 Oaks Christian smoked Del Oro 40-0 and No. 15 Westlake beat Granite Bay 24-6 last week in Loomis. They swap foes this weekend, and it would be a stunner to see both schools sitting at 0-2.
It won't happen to Oakdale because the Mustangs beat Turlock last week, but there is a risk should the game get away. Few folks outside the section see Oakdale, so this is a one-night snapshot for the section commissioners who will ultimately vote to determine the teams playing in the NorCal title games.
An upset win or narrow loss will give Oakdale an early edge to earn a NorCal berth. But if Oceanside wins handily, the Mustangs will have to spend the next 13 weeks trying to earn the commissioners' vote.