Ron Agostini

Agostini: Modesto-Turlock football is history kids can't ignore

Modesto High School player William Shallou attracts a bunch of Turlock High School defenders during one of the many meetings this storied rivalry has seen. (ADRIAN MENDOZA / THE MODESTO BEE)
Modesto High School player William Shallou attracts a bunch of Turlock High School defenders during one of the many meetings this storied rivalry has seen. (ADRIAN MENDOZA / THE MODESTO BEE)

To many teenagers, "history" refers to their summer vacation.

It follows that any reference to events older than last winter's rainstorms are met with glazed-over eyes and a "that-doesn't-matter-to-me" expression. Remember, many of this fall's high school football players were born in 1992.

Not long ago, at least for many of us.

But for members of the football teams of Modesto High and Turlock High, their collision Friday night stands for something much larger than them. It's not required that the Facebook generation knows history, but appreciating it can be enriching.

And what they'll do at Turlock's Joe Debely Stadium renews a very special tradition.

The Panthers from the Stanislaus County seat and the Bulldogs from down Highway 99 will cross paths for the 110th time, California's longest-running continuous series. They've matched touchdowns and tackles each year since 1920, from the Charleston to the World Wide Web. We've witnessed intra-city arguments over the years -- Escalon-Hughson, Orestimba-Gustine and Sonora-Oakdale to name a few -- but Modesto vs. Turlock is the game-topper.

"The kids are oblivious. You can't expect them to understand. They're young," Turlock coach Lance Cornell said. "I bet they'd get it, though, if an old-timer talked to them."

From Don Adams, a former Panther coach and player: "They hated red, and we hated blue. Until all of us were teammates at Modesto Junior College, we didn't even realize the Turlock guys were pretty nice."

From Paul Larson, 76, the former Bulldog who grew into an All-America quarterback at Cal: "It's amazing that some of my greatest friends now are from Modesto and Stanford."

Larson can afford to be magnanimous. As a single-wing tailback in 1947, '48 and '49, he and the Bulldogs swept all five games over Modesto.

The fifth, a 26-7 decision and Turlock's 24th consecutive win, was spiced by a 90-yard interception and touchdown return for Modesto by a future coach and football and basketball referee -- Jerry Streeter.

"The ball bounced off someone's shoulder pads to me," Streeter recalled. "I think they were dumbfounded that we scored."

Nearly 60 years later, both men possess a photo of their handshake after that game -- Larson wearing No. 6 and Streeter No. 8.

"It was a wonderful, wholesome, competitive rivalry," Larson said.

The heroes from the series shine like found gold: "Midget" Critzer (1921), Wee Willie Hess ('38), Frank Duffy ('63), Jeff Winans ('68), Bobby Wagner ('89) and Matt Zumstein ('93) from Turlock; and Harvey Hand ('22), Ray Podesto ('57), Dick Ehrler ('64), future Stanford star Jack Lasater ('65) and Arlen Peters ('72) for Modesto.

And, of course, a cast of thousands.

The coaches over the years form their own honor roll: Debely and Les Ratzlaff for Turlock; and Don Warhurst, Jay Pattee, Ernie Jorge and Bill Han for Modesto.

No one dominated his era quite like Debely, who coached the Bulldogs from 1933 to '41 and again from '46 to '53. Put simply, there are huge reasons why the THS stadium is named in Debely's memory. Not only did he lead his teams to five consecutive league titles from '33 to '37, he masterminded a 26-4-3 takeover of the Modesto-Turlock series. His toughest opponent was a hitch in the Navy during World War II.

"Debely would say, 'Fellows, here is the ball and here is the line of scrimmage. We need this ground. I'm going to teach you how to get it,' " Larson said. "He was tough and super-fundamental and one of the greatest influences in my life."

The cities' respective histories are linked to football. The rivalry intensified by twice-a-season meetings from 1934 through '54, capped each year by a Thanksgiving Day showdown.

"The History of High School Football in Modesto," written by Dennis Snelling and published in 1999, reported crowds which reached 10,000 for these games.

"Everyone put their Thanksgiving turkeys in the oven before the game. You could have robbed either town," Streeter said. "In the old days, that was the game. Whether you had a good year or not, it boiled down to one game."

Back then, Stockton, Lodi, Modesto and Turlock all were one-school towns. Many things hinged on the outcome -- championships, friendly wagers, not-so-friendly wagers and, of course, intense pride.

In recent decades, the series has been marginalized by school expansion as the towns swelled into cities. Years have passed since Turlock and Modesto even competed in the same conference.

Turlock has used long periods of dominance to lead the series 66-38-5. But since the opening of Pitman -- Turlock's second high school -- the Panthers have regained their bite by winning three of the last four.

To everyone's benefit, the game continues.

In 1932, it targeted the unemployed as the Great Depression wracked the valley. In '67, Han replaced Pattee -- who died at 45 earlier that year from a brain hemorrhage -- and guided the Panthers to a 9-1 record. In '93, Zumstein carried 27 times for 353 yards, but Modesto saved the game in the final seconds 35-34.

"I've made it a point as long as I have a say that we will continue to play this game," Modesto coach Rod Long said. "I think Turlock feels the same."

And that's the best news for the young men wearing Modesto red and Turlock blue.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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