Nothing speaks more loudly about the competitive balance among Modesto Metro Conference soccer teams than Thursday's Gregori-Beyer match.
It was a battle of first vs. last, and while the Jaguars eventually pulled out to a 4-1 victory at Mary Grogan Park, it was a tight game through 60 minutes.
"Of the six years I've been doing this, it's the tightest league I've seen, minus us," said Patriots coach Mike Richards. "We're not in the mix, but everybody else is right around .500.
"Gregori is leading right now, but they lost to a 2-3 team, so it really is up in the air and it's tough to say who is going to win every week."
That not only is good for the league on a game-to-game basis, since no school has the luxury of taking a day off, but the grind of MMC play, in theory, should pay dividends for the three league members who will be seeded into the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs next month.
"In the past we've had some weak teams in our league, and Beyer is sitting there at 0-7, but they're not an 0-7 team," said Gregori coach Ethan Duewell. "I'm not sure where our upper teams will match up when we get into the playoffs. What I saw in the preseason is that the upper teams in the CCC may be above us, but our league is competitive."
Heading into Thursday's games, six of the seven teams were at .500 or better in MMC action, with only Beyer (0-7 MMC, 7-10-2 overall) not factoring into the the league race.
Yet on Thursday, the Pats were no patsy.
Gregori (6-1 MMC, 13-5-1 overall) got early goals from David Gutierrez and Nick Vander Veen to take a 2-0 lead into the second half, but Beyer scored in the first five minutes of the second half when Daniel Torres' corner kick to the far post was headed-in by Jake Polack.
It remained a tightly contested one-goal game for the next 25 minutes, until VanderVeen scored on a breakaway for a 3-1 lead, then finessed a nifty cross to Justin Pursch about 20 seconds later for the clinching goal.
"I'm proud of the guys," Richards said. "It's tough to come out and have the season we're having. We've had a couple of broken bones and have been plagued by injuries but the attitude has been great and we're playing with heart."
It might have been fitting that this match was being played on the new surfaces at Grogan Park, a crown jewel of a soccer facility built through the cooperation of the City of Modesto and the Modesto Youth Soccer Association.
Because the MYSA Is the largest youth sports organization in the region, young soccer players have had the chance to face stiff competition before reaching their high school teams.
So while having seven high schools might water-down the overall talent pool in all MMC sports, that pool itself at least in soccer has been deepened by the MYSA.
"I've done this for 29 years in this league and the CCC, and our level of soccer is way above what it was 10 or even 5 years ago," Duewell said. "More kids are playing more soccer throughout the year. On my team, at least 10-12 kids are playing somewhere else. It means the kids are more comfortable with the ball and they understand the game better.
"This year I've done very little tactical or skills teaching. I'm pretty much doing all strategic stuff, and in past years I had to spend time on basic drills."
It also means there are increasing numbers of players on all seven MMC rosters who have played at the competitive or even elite levels of youth soccer.
So even when first plays last in the MMC, it's going to be a game.
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150. Follow him, @modestobeek.