The Modesto Junior College Pirates have became instant contenders, and eventual second-place finishers, during their first two football seasons in the Valley Conference.
For the home stretch of 2012, they must accept a new posture spoilers.
Modesto (1-2, 4-4) will wrap up against the conference's best perennial powerhouse Fresno in the final home game Saturday afternoon, followed by a road trip to San Joaquin Delta on Nov. 10.
The Pirates must win both to remain bowl-eligible. Reality-wise, they trail co-leaders Fresno, Delta, Sierra and American River by only one game. Fact-wise, there are four at the top, and two already have upended the Pirates.
Modesto has paid dearly for dropping three games by a touchdown or less, two of them in conference the last two weeks against Sierra and American River.
"We're licking our wounds. We have to stay the course. The season is a grinder," head coach Sam Young said. "When you lose three by one score, Coach Da Prato (former MJC coach Steve Da Prato) used to say, 'That's one play.' We're one play in three games from 7-1."
True enough, but Modesto has shrunk its margin for error this season by allowing 40 points a game. Last week, the Pirates couldn't hold a 35-14 lead and fell at American River 56-49.
They've won their share of shootouts in previous years, but not this fall. An upgraded non-league schedule, combined with arguably better skill players around the Valley, have hurt Modesto.
"We have to show more resolve and not panic. We're still trying to figure this out," Young said. "Our guys do realize that we can play against anyone in this league; and just figure out a way to finish."
Fresno (6-2, 2-1) threw the conference into four-way chaos with its 31-28 victory over Delta last week. The Rams appear to have stabilized after their loss to American River and close calls against Merced and Reedley. Their base talent showed when they blew a huge lead and lost in the final seconds to top-ranked City College of San Francisco.
More important to MJC, Fresno is the only team that the Pirates have not beaten since they rejoined the VC in 2010. Sooner or later, Modesto must match up with the Rams.
It won't be easy this week, however, given Modesto's problems at running back. Marcus Hernandez will miss Saturday's game (shoulder) and his replacement, Herbert Whitehurst (he rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns last week after Hernandez exited), will miss the final two games after he suffered a non-football-related injury this week.
Aaron Fields, who has missed the last five games (groin), will be available in a limited role. After him, the Pirates will be forced to mix and match with Brian Jones, Antoin Price and even slotback Ricky Fuentes.
NOTES Kickoff is 1 p.m. Saturday at MJC Stadium. ... The Pirates will honor the sophomores and their families in their final home appearance.