The phrase "It was a good two years" was repeated over and over as the Modesto Junior College Pirates shook hands and wrapped up the 2007 season.
Season-ending games are packed with finality at the high school and community college levels. For many, it is the last time they'll line up next to a fully-padded teammate and play third-and-2 like their last breath depended on it.
Which is why the Pirates lingered for a few extra moments after their 42-21 loss in the Graffiti Bowl. Some await their sophomore year and some will continue at a four-year school. The rest place football in the past tense and will improve remarkably over the years, because the old stories grow richer with time.
The 2007 Pirates, though a pedestrian 6-5, accomplished a few important things -- a Golden Gate Conference title and MJC's first unbeaten league record in 27 years. But what they learned in the brilliant November sunshine will stick with them as long as they reunite with old buddies.
They learned that the Laney Eagles were birds too tough to tame.
Modesto had two chances on its home turf, in its own bowl game, against the lads from Oakland. Twice the Pirates submitted, 34-28 last year and once again Saturday afternoon. The argument is over and the jury has returned a verdict. The record book will affirm that Laney was just a bridge too far for MJC in 2006 and '07.
Summarized MJC sophomore linebacker Dylan Miller, "Bittersweet."
Miller gazed into the distance knowing a chapter of his life had ended. To him and his fellow sophomores, Laney always will be the girl that got away or the car too expensive to buy.
"They have a lot of talent," Miller admitted. "They were the better team today."
Warriors like Miller define all the good qualities about MJC football. Here, JC football has a face. It's dressed in stripeless plain-Jane blue. It usually spots its opponents a half-step but covers with a helmet to the chest. It also cares enough about the process to stage a bowl game for 15 years, which is no small thing.
"I take away a lot of friends and memories. I learned the value of hard work. I didn't start last year but I didn't miss a day of weight training," Miller said. "It's rare you get an entire team full of good guys you can have fun playing with."
But sometimes, having fun is overrated. Against Laney (10-1), which wrapped up its best season in 13 years, carrying out a plan is more important. Simply, the Pirates got in their own way too many times to spring the upset.
There was that 14-0 deficit 13 minutes into the game. There was a first-and-goal from the 2 during the third quarter and the open door of a 28-14 lead if Modesto managed just six more feet. And when the Pirates failed, there was the same door shutting on their hands.
"We were riding that roller coaster, up and down," free safety Tim Brown said. "When they scored, we dropped our heads a little bit. You have to stay in the game. Football is made of emotion."
The Pirates didn't lack emotion. They lacked sustaining that emotion for four quarters. After ex-Cal prospect Virdell Larkins returned an interception 79 yards for Laney's go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter, MJC's confidence waned.
Bowl games always are emotional X-factors. In most cases, only pride matters. Teams, minus an arch-rival or conference foe to target, often rummage the closet for reasons to max-out on game day. That didn't bother MJC against Laney. The Pirates wrote out their own agenda -- revenge.
"Today was very emotional for the sophomores," said Brown, who showed his pluck by blocking a field goal and returning it 20 yards. "We did everything we possibly could. We left it all on the field."
There was no shame, only disappointment, versus Laney. A few players looked ahead. The Pirates will return next fall with wide receiver-acrobat Marcus Allen (six catches, 94 yards and a touchdown). Many potential recruits lined the sidelines and inspected the Pirates up close and personal.
They'll fill those trademark blue jerseys, the ones vacated on Graffiti day by the departing class. The Pirates enjoyed their run, for sure, though it was hard to tell at game's end.
Concluded Miller, "Give me a day or two."
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.