SANTA ROSA — Who could have figured that the Modesto Junior College Pirates, who languished south of the .500 mark for much of the season, would wrap up the season as bowl champions?
Perhaps the only people who believed in that result were the Pirates themselves, which made their Saturday night celebration all the sweeter.
Modesto led by as many as 23 points and held off a second-half rally by Santa Rosa for a 48-39 victory in the Golden Valley Bowl at Bailey Field.
Running back Anthony Cota, whose 86-yard rip for his third touchdown early in the fourth quarter all but sealed the outcome, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Quarterback TeeJay Gordon, who rushed for two touchdowns and completed 21 of 28 passes for 234 yards, received the Outstanding Offensive Player Award.
And Sam Young was handed his 89th career win (89-61), making him the winningest football coach in MJC history. Young, who wrapped up his 14th season, surpassed the iconic Fred Earle.
Young took more pleasure, however, in his team’s winning three of its last four for a winning season. It was also the Pirates’ first bowl victory since 2010.
“Bowl games are rewards. When you win, it’s like putting the cherry on top,” Young said. “The win was a great tribute to the coaches and the players. We’ve improved a lot, and we’re happy that we hung on.”
Heroes abounded for Modesto (6-5), but one of the most conspicuous was hometown product Herbert Whitehurst. He anchored MJC’s big 23-point first quarter with twin thunderbolts: His block-and-return of a Santa Rosa extra point for a rare deuce, and a spectacular 87-yard punt return into the end zone.
Earlier, Modesto opened the game with a 70-yard 9-play march which was capped by Gordon’s 14-yard run. The Pirates did not trail and amazingly overcame six lost fumbles and 18 penalties for 173 yards.
“We had fumble-itis and everybody took turns,” Young said. “The offense still was running well.”
Indeed, MJC gashed the Bear Cubs (6-5) for 444 rushing yards, a week after the Pirates dented Delta for 434 rushing yards. Cota totaled 201 yards on 20 carries, and James Sams carried 26 times for 124 yards and a score.
Santa Rosa chopped Modesto’s 36-13 halftime lead to 36-26 midway through the third quarter. The Pirates stabilized by taking advantage of a short Bear Cubs punt, leading to Sams’ 2-yard touchdown run.
The Modesto defense then made its major contribution. On 3rd-and-goal from the Modesto 9, the Pirates’ Tyler Palacios forced a wide-receiver fumble recovered by Markell Perkins. Four players later, Cota embarked on his 86-yard sojourn.
“That gave us some breathing room,” Young said. “Cota broke tackles and had a marvelous run at an important time.”
Santa Rosa lineman Anthony Ezrim was named the game’s top defensive player, but Modesto made him work. The fast-break MJC offense, California’s most productive coming into the game (523-yard average), did not disappoint by gaining 678 yards compared to the Bear Cubs’ 540.
The Modesto receivers were led by Zach Moreno with five catches for 78 yards. Chris Souza had seven receptions for 64 yards.