For the second time this season, The Dog Bone will be up for grabs.
The Turlock High football team will start the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs at Tracy on Thursday. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Wayne Schneider Stadium.
No. 8 Tracy (7-3) was the last team to beat ninth-seeded Turlock (8-2), which thunders into the postseason on a seven-game winning streak. Turlock defended its Central California Conference crown, winning each game by at least 11 points.
"I don't mind having to play Tracy again. I think it's a really good match-up for us," Turlock coach James Peterson said. "It was a close game the last time and I felt we really didn't play well. I know our guys are fired up to get a second crack at them."
Turlock has won two of the last three meetings with Tracy, but the Tri-City Athletic League runner-up took ownership of the Dog Bone, a pet store find painted in the rivals' colors, on Sept. 8. Tracy won 29-22, a decision that ultimately cast Turlock as the road team in this first-round meeting.
"I wish we were playing them here (at Joe Debely Stadium)," Peterson said, "but if you're going to pair us with them, it's hard to justify that we get the home game. I'm a little bummed about it, but if we would have beat Tracy, we would be playing at home."
Peterson said his team has grown by leaps and bounds since that loss, particularly on offense. Junior quarterback Jonah Kosakiewicz has settled under center after a touch-and-go start to the season. In their first meeting, Kosakiewicz and the offense struggled to sustain drives.
Turlock mustered just 195 total yards and managed nine first downs.
"Our offensive production is way up," Peterson said. "I remember in that game specifically not being able to convert third downs and being frustrated that we were constantly punting the ball. We couldn't sustain a drive. Our defense was on the field all night. A lot of that stuff, we've cleaned it up. We're able to score on teams, especially teams with good defenses like Merced and Pitman. Here at the end of the season, our offense has improved a lot."
Kosakiewicz was outplayed by Tracy sophomore Logan Fife, who was 12 of 24 for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Fife also shredded Buhach Colony, the CCC runner-up, in a 51-30 victory, accounting for six TDs.
"He's only a sophomore, but he plays at a really high level," Peterson said. "He has a lot of confidence, and he's one of the best we've seen at Tracy. He runs that triple-option and he can also throw the ball. That's a side to Tracy we haven't seen. Here's a guy who can run the ball, but throw it, too. We can't just play Tracy's run or we'll get beat on the back end."
Kosakiewicz, who had the daunting task of replace two-time CCC MVP Danny Velasquez, needed time to mature.
Since the loss to Tracy, Kosakiewicz has thrown eight touchdowns against one interception, giving Peterson the confidence to open up the playbook. He has attempted 14 or more passes in three of the last four games, including a season-high 17 in a Harvest Bowl victory over Pitman.
He was 11 of 17 for 174 yards and two touchdowns, knocking the Pride out of playoff contention.
"Our QB is making the right reads and he's making some great throws," Peterson said. "The receivers are catching the ball and we're starting to convert third downs. It took a little longer than I hoped. I thought we would have got some of that stuff cleaned up in the summer, but it took some live-game reps to get there. I guess some of that is to be expected.
"We had a junior QB coming in and we ask those guys (quarterbacks) to do a lot out there. He's making actual reads instead of deciding pre-snap where he's going with the ball."
Defense continues to be the backbone for Turlock, which is yielding just 14.3 points per game.
Seniors Gabriel Cordero and Dustin Grein have developed into stars under coordinator Raven Keene. Cordero ranks second in the section in sacks with 15, while Grein, a rising Division I recruit, has five interceptions, including two for touchdowns. The two have combined for 153 tackles.
"Our D-coordinator does a good job of making sure our guys run to the football," Peterson said. "That has been a big part of it. Even when you make mistakes, if you're running to the football, someone is going to get there and keep points off the board.
"We have the confidence that we can stop the drive no matter where they're at on the field, and it shows. Dustin is making big plays. He's making plays in the back and flying up to make tackles in the box. Cordero has been everything we thought he would be. Our guys are playing ball."