Major reward: MJC Pirates parlay 8-2 season into state-bracket berth

Ron Agostini

MODESTO – The Modesto Junior College Pirates have returned to the state championship bracket, only this time it comes with an extra reward.

An unprecedented home date.

The Pirates (8-2), who picked up the at-large berth among the four Northern California semifinalists, will welcome American River (8-2) in a rematch Saturday night at 6 o’clock at MJC Stadium.  The Beavers, the NorCal Conference champions, have won six straight since their 38-20 loss at home to Modesto.

MJC has served as the host team for many bowl games over the years but never has been at home in the state bracket. The Pirates advanced in 2016 but lost on a rainy night at ARC 27-21.

The Pirates concluded the regular season – and clinched their spot in the state playoffs – with a 48-21 victory Saturday over San Joaquin Delta. As it turned out, the reward was huge.

“I told the team that it’s an honor,” MJC coach Rusty Stivers said. “There are (67) teams in California and we’re a part of the elite eight. It is a big deal…and so hard to do.”

In the other half of the NorCal bracket, Bay 6 champion College of San Mateo (10-0) will welcome Valley champion Fresno (8-2) Saturday at noon.The winners will meet on Nov. 30,  and the survivor will face the Southern California champion in the state title game Dec. 14 at Bakersfield College.

 Modesto, the only non-champion of the quartet, qualified because of its powerful RPI ranking, second only to San Mateo in the north. Another major factor was the Pirates’ 23-20 victory over San Francisco on Sept. 21. Modesto announced its arrival by knocking off defending state champion Laney in the season opener.

The Pirates stacked up RPI points by going 1-2 against the other semifinalists and 4-1 in non-league play. That lifted MJC past the disappointment of a 26-24 loss to Fresno which cost the Pirates the Valley title. Their only other loss came at San Mateo 35-12.

“No one imagined we would go 4-1 on our non-league schedule,” Stivers said. “We earned our seed.”

Modesto overcame major problems during the win at American River on Sept. 28. Danny Velasquez, one of Northern California’s top dual-threat quarterbacks, was sidelined by injury early in the game. The Pirates also lost Michael Ramos, their most productive running back, for the rest of the season due to a knee injury incurred in the second half.

To the rescue came backup quarterback Brett Neves as the Pirates built a huge time-of-possession advantage en route to a 38-7 lead.  Neves and Velasquez have become an effective tandem – Neves through the air and Velasquez on the ground. Velasquez returned to early-season form last weekend by strafing Delta for 211 rushing yards.

“The American River game was the best overall game we played this season,” Stivers said. “We were on point and everything went our way. The teams are very familiar with each other. We’ve been playing each other for many years both in league and before now in non-league.”

Stivers attributes MJC’s success to improved depth, illustrated in part at quarterback. The defense, anchored by lineman Antonio Pule and inside linebacker Ferrin Manuleleua, fights with the dynamic offense for attention but also has excelled.

“We’ve always been so thin at certain positions,” Stivers said. “This year we’ve been nicked up a lot, but the next-guy-up thing has worked for us.”