MODESTO -- A cold, clear night, with a distant bank of lights flooding the field and every person in the stands confident they know who will be getting the handoff.
It's another fall Friday in the Stanislaus District.
It could be at Orestimba High with Steven Machado, at Sierra seeing Anthony Cota or in Escalon watching Nathan Chunn rumble.
While college coaches and the NFL fawn over quarterbacks, the high school game largely remains home to running backs. It means reaping rewards, and the love of the crowd, but it also means intense pressure.
Machado was good for 233 yards a game and was No. 2 in the state with 1,623 yards in seven games. That total dropped to 1,612 yards after Hughson put the clamps on him last week.
Machado's just a junior, so we'll enjoy him again next season. It's going to be a memorable one if he keeps his pace. He has 2,905 yards in 19 varsity games, or 153 a game. If he plays another 13 two more this year and say 11 next year, should he get a playoff game that pace will generate another 1,989.
It would push Machado's career total to 4,894 yards. That's impressive, but do some digging to see Tyler Ebell of Ventura had 4,495 yards in one season in 2000.
That's the nature of the high school game, and when combined with the hurry-up offenses that lead to dozens of more plays each game, it has helped generated this question: Who are the district's top 12 running backs of the last quarter-century?
I watched my first game for The Bee in '86, but it wasn't until 1988 that I saw my first great back: Merced had this bowling ball of a kid in the backfield, Jhay Roland, and the sophomore never was without a smile.
Well, except for the 1989 section final: A cheap shot by a Nevada Union player during a punt return broke Roland's jaw. Roland had his jaw wired shut for months, but beat that same Nevada Union team in 1990 to secure what is still the only overall state title won by a school in the district.
He remains the district's best over the last 25 years.
He had size, speed, could catch anything thrown his way and won. Wow, did this kid know how to win: 41-1 in three seasons, three Sac-Joaquin Section finals, two section titles and a state crown in 1990.
We've never had a back like Roland, not before and not since. When I want to judge a back, Roland is the template that I work off.
Machado doesn't make the top dozen in my 25-year club he has to finish his career before I can grade him and it's also why Los Banos' James Sams and Central Catholic's Rey Vega aren't being considered this year.
Anyone hoping to crack this list has got their work ahead of them. The No. 12 back on the list is Marcus Hernandez of Oakdale. Not saying he's 12th-best, but he's the lone back I picked from this modern era of no-huddle offenses and teams averaging 40 points.
The next few years will judge his 2011 campaign of 1,633 yards and 32 TDs stunning statistics for a fullback in the Wing-T. He makes the list, in part, due to a perfect template: Size to run over linebackers and speed to outrun DBs.
Sonora's Josh Parry (1992-94) and Davis' Nicko Tatum (1994-95) are similar to Hernandez in that they had the power to be a lead back and the speed to take a turn being the tailback.
Parry played in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles that's an endorsement! Tatum is still the best back the city has produced. He was a weight-room disciple before it was cool to lift, and that helped make him the district's first-ever 2,000-yard rusher in 1995.
One thing I realized as I went back through 25 years is that Merced High is our Running Back U: I have four Bears on the list. It meant leaving off John Rushing, Stephon Jackson, Garrett Turner, Marvin Eastman, Stephon Mathis ... well, that list goes on.
My other Bear backs are Anthony Volsan (1990-92), Wendell Mathis (1999-2000) and Freddy Bland (1992-93) and I'll take Bland first for a remarkable one-year performance. He had 1,833 yards and 37 TDs to lead the Bears to a 13-1 record and the section final in '93. He had 10 TDs of 50 yards or more and six from the 1.
Bland earns a special nod as the most versatile back on this list, in part because he was a constant target. It seemed everyone knew the ball would be in hands, but no one slowed him down.
The district's never had a speed-back like Volsan, third in the state in the 100 and 200 meters as a junior, and he played with Roland on that state title team. He got Merced into the section final in 1992, and was The Bee's Player of the Year before heading off to USC.
Mathis, meanwhile, went to UCLA after rushing for 1,981 yards and 21 TDs as a senior. His career total of 3,493 yards still is a school record that alone would get him on any list. He had 1,313 yards and 15 TDs in 2005 after transferring to Fresno State, and was on the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad two years.
Volsan and Mathis were burners, in contrast to one of my favorites: Los Banos' Rodney Percoats. He had career totals of 445 carries, 3,777 yards 8.5 yards a carry and 53 TDs to go with a section title in 1991.
He was being recruited by Nebraska, but he picked up 30 pounds prior to his senior year and fell out of favor. He still ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of his three varsity seasons.
A lot of folks forget Colin Kaepernick wasn't the star at Pitman in 2005. No, that was Anthony Harding.
The three-year star had 4,095 career yards, leading the district with 1,710 as a junior. He had 52 TDs, too, and went to Fresno State.
I've got two small-school backs in Hughson's Oscar Castaneda and Louis Bland of Central Catholic, though Castaneda has the saddest story of this group. He led the state in rushing before an ankle injury in Week 8 hobbled him yet he had 1,986 yards in 11 games. He averaged 10.7 yards a run.
While Castaneda was one of the most creative backs, Louis Bland was the kind of back who would bring a lunch pail to the game. He was a beast, he won two state wrestling titles, and the most physical runner I had seen since Eastman.
No coincidence Eastman also was a state wrestling champ. Eastman's 41 years old, but still battling the mixed martial art fighter won his last fight in April.
Eastman didn't make the list, but I'm not telling him!