The bus sways on creaky suspension, rattling and shaking with each pothole and speed bump. The cab is pitch black, illuminated only by the cell phone in Aaron Souza’s hand.
“Six-thirty left in the JV game,” he says. “We’re up 40-14.”
The report is met with ... silence.
No one speaks in the 10 minutes it takes to smuggle the Stanislaus District’s top small-school football program behind enemy lines, Newman to rival Gustine. Orestimba moves in the shadows, too, opting for a country road rather than Highway 33.
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At the corner of Upper and Fentem Road, the bus is met by a police escort. Newman officer Edgar Lopez is parked in the middle of the road. The bus grinds to a stop. The school resource officer approaches the bus. “You guys ready to do this?” Lopez says, breaking the silence.
No words. Just a short burst of applause followed by ...
With his bar lit up, flashing blue and red, Lopez shepherds the reigning Southern League champs the rest of the way. Lopez is a former all-conference linemen with skin in the game. His duty is to protect and serve, but his heart pulls for the Warriors.
Soon, the stadium lights appear above the tree line, and a stream of tightly parked cars stretching out along 5th Avenue sets the mood. Small-town football enlists entire communities, ties together generations, and invokes a passion felt only in certain pockets of the country.
“This is like Texas,” Souza says.
Without the southern drawl.
Here, they just snicker and hiss at one another. As the bus rumbles through the neighborhood surrounding Gustine High, fans obstruct the bus and scowl at the faces in the window.
“Our time!" one player says. "Our time!”
The door swings open, allowing the outside to rush in. The vacuum is gone, replaced by the smell of barbecued meat and wet grass. The sound of noisemakers. The crisp feel of the fall chill.
Thousands have lined the track, awaiting the arrival of the king.
Orestimba has dominated the last decade of this rivalry, including Friday’s 72nd meeting, but the spirit and intensity never wanes, never disappoints.
The Warriors file out of the bus and through the gates. Souza paces the line, his face growing more and more agitated. If he could, the Orestimba alumnus would pad-up, too. Instead, he’s become a master motivator.
“We arrived with two,” he says, alluding to the Warriors’ consecutive Southern League titles, “and we’re going to leave with three.”
Not without a few bold play calls and the heroics of junior quarterback Jacob Bettencourt, a Gustine transplant. Bettencourt threw four TD passes, overcoming an interception and a fumble. He punctuated the 35-0 victory by slamming his new colors -- the purple and gold flag -- into the end zone.
"I grew up here," Bettencourt said. "I learned to play on this field. This will be my last time playing here. What an amazing way to leave."
After a ragged start that featured turnovers on both sides, Tyler Vargas sprinted under a Bettencourt pass on fourth-and-13. The 37-yard reception made it 7-0.
Leaving nothing in the bag, Orestimba was 3-for-3 on fourth down in the first half and converted twice to extend a 16-play, 86-yard drive in the second quarter.
"I can't really explain it," Bettencourt said. "We have this amazing bond. We all feed off each other. I trust my wide receivers and my teammates. I know they can make plays. I know they're better than the guy across from them."
Tymon Bolden bolted 34 yards on a fake punt, and Bettencourt scrambled for another first down as the Warriors rolled into halftime ahead 14-0. The junior capped the drive with his second TD pass, an 18-yard flip to Solomon Bell who towed a Gustine player over the goal line.
"Play of the game," Souza said of Bolden's gutsy decision.
And it was his alone.
Without any input from the coaching staff, Bolden kept the ball, racing by Gustine defenders who had no clue it was a fake. Bolden would finish with 130 yards on 16 carries, but would leave the game late in the third quarter with a left knee injury.
It was the only blemish on an otherwise perfect night for the city of Newman.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, hundreds of fans spilled onto the field, joining the players as they chanted "E!L!E! E!L!E!" Senior Jaime Munoz, looking like a WWE wrestler, bounced in the mosh pit with blood streaming from a cut above his nose.
Orestimba has pursued history with one mantra: Everybody love everybody. It's created a family culture within the program, pushing the Warriors toward their second 10-0 regular season in three years, a 21-game league winning streak, and of course, three years with The Chief, a 5-foot wooden statue that watched the final quarter from the north end zone.
"We've worked hard all season for this, sweating through 110-degree heat in the summer," Bettencourt said. "Nothing stops us. We don't stop playing, no matter the score, no matter the quarter."
To his point, Orestimba turned a close-knit game into a rout with 21 points in the fourth quarter, including two touchdowns in a 19-second span, and then rolled the party back to Newman.
As the bus pulled into the parking lot on campus, Souza, his phone buzzing in hand, readied for the second half of his night. Family and friends had already begun to gather outside his home.
"I guarantee my head won't hit the pillow until about 5," he says.
It's OK, though, Orestimba earned the chance to revel.
They had been silent long enough.