High School Football

Modesto, Downey renew city’s oldest football rivalry

In 1883, Chester Arthur was the president of the United States, John L. Sullivan was heavyweight champion, the Brooklyn Bridge opened after more than a decade of construction and the New York Gothams – known today as the San Francisco Giants – joined the upstart National League.

Modesto opened its first public high school that same year.

At 131 years old, Modesto High is, by far, the oldest high school in the Stanislaus District. And for more than 70 years, the Panthers didn’t have a rival within the city limits. That changed in 1954, when Thomas Downey High School opened its doors.

The teams met for the first time on Sept. 29, 1954 – the Panthers cruised to a 34-0 victory – and Friday night marks the 60th anniversary of the first Modesto-Downey game, the city’s longest running turf war.

These teams may represent Modesto’s oldest rivals, but their offenses are anything but old. Modesto (5-0) and Downey (4-1) feature two of the most innovative schemes in the Stanislaus District.

“We’re really kind of mirror images of each other,” said Knights coach Jeremy Plaa, whose team has reeled off four wins in a row since blowing a 19-point third-quarter lead in the season-opening 36-33 loss to Pitman. “There’s a lot of speed on both teams and we have two of the better quarterbacks in the league.”

Downey’s spread offense is run by senior quarterback P.J. Wilson, who has completed 65 percent of his passes (for 256 yards per game) this year with 16 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.

Modesto, meanwhile, has the breakout star of the season thus far in Nate Phillips, who had to sit out last year because of the transfer rule.

Phillips, son of MHS coach Richie Alkire, is completing 71 percent of his passes (for 225 yards per game) with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Phillips also is the squad’s leading rusher with 136 yards per game.

“I’m really looking forward to this week,” Alkire said. “In my humble opinion, Downey is the standard in this league, top to bottom. I hope my program can be there to compete with that.”

Plaa, since taking over at Downey in 2007, is 46-33 and has won at least a share of the past three Modesto Metro Conference titles. But last year, the Panthers won the regular-season matchup 46-19 and earned the league’s No. 1 playoff seed.

“We got lucky that Gregori was able to trip them up last year and even up the records,” said Plaa, who is 1-3 in his career against Alkire.. “But they outcoached us last year, and three years ago when (Alkire) was at Beyer … they got us that year, too. He’s a great coach and he’s got a great coaching staff. Put good players with that and you’ve got a pretty good matchup Friday night.”

In addition to Phillips, Modesto features running back Antonio Perez, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, and receivers Will Gallo and Caleb Sexson.

Gallo also plays defensive end and is second in the Sac-Joaquin Section with nine sacks (trailing Sacramento’s Lonny Powell by half a sack).

Downey’s Malcome Green and Josh Holt handle the bulk of the running chores, while Isaiah Larry, Josh Lowe and Sean Bingham are favorite receiving targets, though in last week’s 42-14 win over Beyer, nine different Knights caught passes.

“We didn’t want to look past Beyer because they’re such a good team as well,” Plaa said. “But this is the one we knew we would have to win in order to get that league title.”

Alkire said his team hasn’t been peeking ahead to this showdown.

“In all honesty, what’s worked well for us, is a week-by-week thing,” Alkire said. “I know that can be a cliché, and that’s kind of the right thing to say, but I really, truly believe it with this team. The way that our schedule is set up, we’ve been challenged every week.

“But now that we’re here, yeah, we’re thrilled to play them.”