MODESTO -- Try as he might, Downey High quarterback Aaron Zwahlen couldn't shake the burden that every Modesto Metro Conference team is carrying into the playoffs.
There is little competition in town for the conference's top teams, and those squads pay the price for their easy ride to the postseason. They aren't ready for the physical and innovative style of play that the postseason requires.
"There's something to it," said Zwahlen, after passing for 380 yards and three TDs in Friday's 56-21 Division 1 quarterfinal loss to Granite Bay. "Our starters only play for a half in most conference games, and we're not seeing a lot that will challenge us."
It's not unique to Downey, though the Knights are the hot team of late, so they're in this position most often.
High school football teams only improve if they sense a need to improve. If the wins come easy and base scheme regularly generates 30 or 40 points, why mess with it?
The problem arises when real competition arrives. Downey could play Granite Bay 10 times and it would never win, the chasm is that wide. Downey had not faced a team with a fraction of the Grizzlies' skill since it beat Central Catholic in Week 4.
Had Downey faced Granite Bay in Week 5, it still would have lost, but it would have been a competitive evening.
Downey grew fat on MMC opponents the following six weeks the championship battle with Enochs was over by halftime rarely getting anything but a momentary scare during the 48 minutes. If there had been a sparring partner or two, the Knights might have been ready for the fly offense that Granite Bay used to dominate play.
Coach Jeremy Plaa would have seen the running game that had been so effective in conference play was more of a facade than a force. When the run failed Friday the Knights had negative yards the game became a rout.
Had the run failed in the MMC, we might have seen Herman Harris shifted to a halfback for a few series. A hard-nosed player, his style is perfect for the postseason. He's not a natural runner, but starting halfback Juan Vaa-Ayala doesn't have the physical presence to run the ball against a defense like Granite Bay's. Downey ran into an identical obstacle in last year's first-round loss.
Harris, the top defensive player in the city, lining up alongside Zwahlen to take a half-dozen handoffs? Sounds like a weird idea, but you're forced to try such creative ideas when you face quality opponents each week. That's why Granite Bay is so good.
The Grizzlies went 5-0 in the Sierra Foothill League, among the most difficult in the region, and beat Del Oro for the title. Del Oro's won back-to-back section crowns and plays for a trip to the D2 championship game Friday.
Had the Grizzlies not been pushed by a few teams, they might not have developed a quality passing attack to go with a dominant run game.
None of this is new to those who follow football in town, but it's crucial we face this fact before the section adopts a realignment plan. Modesto City Schools wants the seven Modesto schools to remain in one league, and we've seen what that means.
Modesto schools are rarely competitive with their peers across the section, with rare exceptions. Playoff wins are infrequent and section team titles come once a decade.
While the district wants to keep its schools together for its convenience, and nothing more, there is a Plan B that would save Modesto sports. It has Gregori, Modesto and Enochs joining Turlock's two schools and two from Merced County for a D1 league. Modesto's four other schools would form a D2 league with Oakdale, Merced's El Capitan (opens in 2013) and two Merced County schools.
If Downey met Oakdale in league, the Knights would have realized just how much their run game needed help. They would have seen their defense still was vulnerable.
If Enochs played Buhach Colony, Pitman and Turlock on consecutive weeks late in league, it would have seen that its "physical style" of play isn't all that physical.
Modesto football once was up there with the best in the section, when Downey and Davis cut their teeth against the best Turlock, Atwater and Merced had to offer in the Central California Conference. It can be great once more, but that can only happen if the seven schools go their separate ways.