MODESTO — The city of Modesto has a new football champion, and it means an end to Central Catholic High's 23-year rule.
"This win wasn't just for Downey, it was for every city school," said coach Jeremy Plaa, unaware Central's last loss to a city school was to Modesto in early 1989. "I heard from every coach this week, and it was 'beat Central.' "
After watching a 24-point lead turn into a fourth-quarter deficit, Aaron Zwahlen and Herman Harris turned in two of the biggest plays in the history of Downey football both scores.
Zwahlen flicked a 52-yard TD pass to put Downey up, then Harris picked off a pass and returned it 23 yards for a TD to seal the Knights' 45-42 upset.
Not only has Central been the dominant power in the Stanislaus District for a quarter-century, it owns the section record with 15 championships.
"You don't win a football game by playing a half. We were asleep most of it," said Central coach Roger Canepa, whose Raiders (2-2) beat state-ranked St. Mary's last week. "We have a lead and they've got fourth down, and we let them get out of it and get a score."
Downey (3-1), The Bee's No. 7 large school, was facing fourth-and-6 at its 48 with 7 minutes left, down 34-31.
Zwahlen tossed it to Richard Lopez (6 catches, 132 yards, 2 TDs), whose spin move drove his defender to the ground. That was all the opportunity Lopez needed, racing the rest of the way as Downey's bleachers erupted.
"My biggest game, my biggest win ever," said Zwahlen, who was 20 of 36 for 294 with four TDs and a pick. "The defense, it came up real big tonight."
Thanks to Harris. His 54-yard punt return put Downey up 14-0 in the first quarter, then he produced his second big play and this one sealed a win.
Trailing 38-34, Central's Garrett Ardis (23 of 40, 317 yards, 4 TDs, 2 picks) fired a short pass to Chris Lein but Harris had baited the QB. He undercut Lein, grabbing the ball and casting away Lein as he tried to recover and drag down Harris near the 20.
That didn't happen.
Harris gained his balance for the TD and Downey was up 45-34. Nate Loya cut it to 45-41 with a 52-yard TD with 19 seconds left, but Downey recovered the onside kick.
"This win goes to the very top of my list," said Plaa, who was at Gustine when he lost 49-21 to the Raiders in the section small-school final. "I can tell you the order the touchdowns were scored, that's how much I remember about it."
Downey got its 24-0 lead in the second quarter by shutting down Central running star Ray Lomas. He had run for 381 yards and five TDs in the last two weeks, against two state-ranked programs.
He had 14 carries for just 34 yards at halftime, though he finished with 24 carries for 122 yards. Central could not use him much during its final drives, because there was too little on the clock.
Lomas wasn't the only player struggling for a half.
Zwahlen was 9 of 18 for 76 yards in the first half, but he made his completions count: An 8-yard TD to Blake Lopez and a 23-yard toss to Tristan Best whose over-the-shoulder catch between bracketing DBs was the play of the half.
Credit for the 10-point halftime lead goes to the special teams, though. Harris electrified the crowd with his punt return, taking it in the center and veering to the left side, then cutting back against the defense for the last 40. Thomas Reynolds' 25-yard field goal made it 24-0, before Central rallied.
Central's offense was stagnant much of the first half, until Downey gave the Raiders reason to believe by squibbing a kickoff with a 24-0 lead. Blake Escobar returned it 15 yards to the Downey 40 and a personal foul put it at the 20.
Central later got 13 yards on a pass interference call, before Escobar's 8-yard TD reception made it 24-6. The two-pointer failed as Jesus Anguino sacked the passer.
The Raiders only had to go 49 yards to score a TD with seconds left in the first half, after a poor punt with 2:10 to play. A 20-yard catch by Lein and Lomas' 17-yard double-reverse got the ball close and Escobar scored on fourth down from the 3. Lomas' run cut the Raiders' deficit to 24-14.
Before the third quarter had come to an end, Central was within 31-28 when Lein caught a 20-yard TD pass and Lomas ran in from 4 yards out.