Even when they started 3-0, the Modesto Junior College football team saw storm clouds on the horizon.
A toughened non-league and Valley Conference schedule promised difficulty. The defense lacked the big-play punch. Injuries decimated the Pirates at running back.
The momentum stalled and MJC downgeared into a 4-6 finish and a freefalling 1-4 for fifth place in the conference. The Pirates slumped to their first losing season since 2003 and their first bowl-less season since '05.
"You just shake your head. It was a total mystery," head coach Sam Young said after he concluded his 13th season. "You know you'll have seasons like that, but we thought our depth would save us. At the end, we just ran out of players."
True enough, but Modesto's problems ran deeper than injuries. Its defense allowed a school-record 424 points (42.4 points per game) and yielded 47.4 points per game in the VC.
Part of that can be attributed to the fast-tempo offenses deployed by many teams. Regardless, the Pirates were unable to make the clutch stop that was often seen during their 16 wins the previous two years.
MJC's margin for error has lessened after its promotion three seasons ago to the Valley Conference, one of Northern California's best. That said, the Pirates' four league losses in their final four games came by no more than 11 points.
That's why Young still scratches his head.
"It was one play on offense or one play on defense," he said. "We never could put a full game together. I think the team kept a good attitude. Even with a ramped-up schedule, are we competitive? I'd say, 'Yes.' "
There were some positive moments, especially on offense. Quarterback TeeJay Gordon (6-foot-1 and 180 pounds) lacked the size of his predecessors Devin Combs in 2010 (Nevada) and Quinton McCown in 2011 (New Mexico) but developed into the season's most pleasant surprise.
Gordon completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,771 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions and rushed for five touchdowns. Late in the season, the Pirates still moved the ball though they lost running backs Aaron Fields, Marcus Hernandez and Herbert Whitehurst.
Slotback Brian Alvarez, the former option quarterback from Livingston, set three school records:
231 receiving yards during the 2011 win over Delta.
65 catches this fall, which tied Roman Peninian's single-season mark (2006).
117 career receptions, which erased the 107 caught by Marcus Allen in 2006-07.
"I met some great people and made some great memories," Alvarez said after the Pirates' season-ending 48-37 loss at Delta. "The season just came down to a couple of plays."
Gordon, Hernandez (645 yards, 12 touchdowns), the versatile Ricky Fuentes and receiver Bryan Morris will give MJC weapons in 2013, but Modesto must retool in many areas. Young hinted at shifting more emphasis on defense, though its Oregon-like attack has become the Pirates' signature.
"We had one of the best defenses in California in 2010. It slipped away fast," Young said. "We need to find the right combination. Getting good players and how to disperse them that's something we have to consider."
Young, a veteran of 22 years in the MJC program, does not like to call attention to personal achievement. He's closing in, however, on a major MJC coaching record.
His teams have won 83 games, only five shy of the school record held by the prolific Fred Earle.
"I don't want to talk about the record," said Young, who left the career coaching chart off this season's MJC program. "I've been fortunate. I know someday it will end for me here. As long as it's still fun, I'll keep doing it."
Community College Bowl Games
NorCal Football Association Championship American River (8-2) at San Francisco (9-1), 1 p.m.
SoCal Football Association Championship Bakersfield (9-1) at Mt. San Antonio (11-0), 6 p.m.
LAST WEEK'S BOWL RESULTS
Central Division Championship Siskiyous 47, Chabot 18
Southern Division Championship Costa Costa 39, Monterey Peninsula 25
Bothman Bulldog Bowl San Mateo 49, Sierra 20
East Bay Bowl Diablo Valley 30, Laney 27
Silicon Valley Bowl Delta 63, De Anza 56
State Center Bowl Butte 31, Fresno 17