The Modesto High Panthers rang their victory bell Friday night like they never had since, well, the last time they beat Turlock.
For the record, that was five years ago.
That streak ended dramatically at Chuck Hughes Stadium when the Panthers, shaking off an early 14-0 deficit, eventually held on for a 33-28 victory. They waited a long time for their moment. No member of the Modesto varsity, at any level, had celebrated a win over Turlock.
The 117th meeting of these ancient rivals was seized by the Panthers, who deserved to wave their red banner.
“You can preach about character, but when you’re face to face (with adversity), sometimes you can overcome it,” Modesto coach Rich Alkire said.
Modesto (4-0) gave up pounds up front to the Bulldogs, but not much else. It figured that plucky quarterback Nate Phillips, all of 5 feet, 83/4 inches and 158 pounds, grew bigger than life for his team.
Phillips and wide receiver Will Gallo, schoolmates since their days at Hart Ransom, worked some magic together. On fourth-and-goal from the 8 midway through the fourth quarter, Gallo slipped on his cut in the end zone, yet somehow recovered to make a diving catch despite tight coverage. The TD climaxed a march that sliced more than eight minutes off the clock.
“He got up from his buns for that catch,” Phillips said. “He makes a lot of my bad passes look good.”
Gallo’s clutch reception increased the Modesto lead to 33-31, just enough to stave off Turlock’s furious rally. The Bulldogs (2-2) closed to 33-28 on Bubba Moreno’s touchdown pass to Jeffrey Hines, then drove to the Modesto 32 in the final two minutes before missing on fourth down.
The game broke down to a matchup of undersized quarterbacks in Phillips and Moreno, the latter the Bulldogs’ 5-11, 175-pound senior. Moreno tossed two touchdown passes and kicked four extra points while Turlock, one week after its landmark win over longtime Central Section power Clovis West, battled until the closing seconds.
“I don’t think it was a letdown. We should have played better team defense,” Turlock coach James Peterson said. “That’s the best Modesto team in four or five years. Hats off to them.”
The personal connection between Phillips and the 6-foot-1 Gallo also paid off late in the first half. On another fourth-and-goal, Phillips checked from a slant to a fade to his favorite receiver. The pass and the reception needed to be perfect. They were.
Turlock’s defense laid major blows on Phillips but, for the most part, struggled to catch him. He rushed for 96 yards, many on option keepers and scrambles, and passed for 126 yards. His 26-yard touchdown run, after the defense seemingly stopped him, and a 40-yard reverse to Kendall McNair canceled most of the Bulldogs’ early lead.
Andrew Lopez rushed for 112 yards and early straight-ahead touchdowns of 33 and 20 yards for Turlock.