Modesto High quarterback Norvale Howard rubbed his hands across his chest, across the letters "M-O-D-E-S-T-O," as if to draw a line in the sand.
His teammates, kneeling before him, cheered his us-against-the-world address.
"We rep Modesto," said Howard, a charismatic and wildly athletic senior, following the Panthers' 38-28 victory over previously unbeaten Downey. " ... We did good on the field and we repped Modesto really well tonight, guys, so let's keep it up."
With another upset on Friday, no one will be able to argue with Howard. The seventh-ranked Panthers (6-2, 4-0) travel to No. 4 Gregori (8-0, 4-0) for a Modesto Metro Conference game laced with title implications.
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The winner clinches at least a share of the crown with one game to go, while a victory for Modesto comes packaged with the conference's No. 1 overall seed, regardless of the outcome of its regular season finale with Beyer.
"This team is legit," Gregori coach Jason McCoy said. "I knew coming into this season they'd be really, really good."
Now, everyone knows.
Modesto grabbed the inside track with a stunning victory over Downey, the five-time defending league champions. The Knights had their 18-game conference winning streak snapped.
The Panthers never doubted their ability, even as their city rivals hogged the spotlight with their perfect starts.
"We can't linger on that (win) too long," first-year coach Brett Wagner said. "By Saturday morning, we were watching film on Gregori; we turned the page and put that behind us. We're trying to teach the kids that there's more work to be done."
Howard has helped unite the locker room, despite starting the season in a position of uncertainty. Wagner let a summer-long competition between Howard and fellow senior R.J. Berumen carry into the season, hoping the athletes would settle their roles on the team.
"I'm not big on forcing players into a position," Wagner said. "It's the whole round-peg, square-hole thing. As the season wore on, I think (Howard) realized we needed him as the general. When he got the call, he knew he had to take the reins and right the ship."
Howard has cemented his place under center, but more importantly, he's discovered his voice during the Panthers' four-game winning streak.
He commanded the huddle following Modesto's latest triumph, a victory that spun the MMC on its axis.
"Norvale is such a big leader now," Wagner said. "It's something I've seen in Norvale for a long, long time. I've been fortunate enough to watch him grow over the years, from his freshman year to now. Talking with him throughout the year, he realizes it more and more. He realizes what he means to this team and how powerful his voice can be."
On the field, Howard might be the scariest talent in the MMC, a quarterback that can run as well as any running back.
Howard is averaging 6.2 yards per carry and leads the team with 509 rushing yards. He has two 100-yard games, including 108 yards and a touchdown against Downey.
He isn't nearly as consistent throwing the ball, but his ability to run keeps defenses guessing even in passing situations.
Howard is completing just 37.9 percent of his passes, but is coming off his most productive game in more than a year. He burned Downey for 199 yards and two touchdowns, his first 100-yard passing game since Sept. 9, 2016.
Gregori has faced three dual-threat quarterbacks, but McCoy believes Howard is the most dynamic.
"He's like a human highlight film," McCoy said. "We compare him to the kid at Merced (Dhameer Warren) and the receiver from McNair (Andrew Hem) who played QB against us. Beyer has (Ben) Polack, too. We've seen some quarterbacks who can really do some things, but (Howard) is that one player you have to honor.
"He's a big-play type of player. He's a very elusive and he's tough. He takes a hit and keeps going."
Gregori will focus much of its attention on Howard and running back Zaire Eugene, the reigning Back of the Year in the MMC.
Eugene has rushed for just 468 yards and five touchdowns in an offense that splits carries judiciously among six players, but he's averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
"Offensively, everything goes through (Howard) and running back Zaire Eugene," McCoy said. "Those are the two dudes that make their offense go, in my opinion. They're both all-league players, some of the best in our league. When we put together a plan, it revolved around those guys."
To contact reporter James Burns, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jburns1980.