Former Manteca High quarterback Gino Campiotti was named the Valley Conference's most outstanding offensive player after re-emerging as a bona fide Division I quarterback. Campiotti had transitioned to tight end while at Northern Arizona, but bounced back to Modesto Junior College to give quarterback a second chance.

'One of the big boys': Locally-powered, MJC now a state football heavyweight

Ron Agostini

The Modesto Junior College football program has joined the elite class in Northern California. The record proves it.

The Pirates, 44-23 over the six-season head-coaching run of Rusty Stivers, shared the Valley Conference title this season with Fresno. Though it lost painfully to the Rams 22-16 – the Rams’ defense accounted for two touchdowns – MJC benefitted from Reedley’s upset win over Fresno in the regular season’s final week.

“Reedley turned something that was really hurtful into quite a reward,” Stivers said.

The Pirates (8-3) then capped the season by parlaying six turnovers (four interceptions) into an impressive 36-14 victory over Diablo Valley in the Grizzly Bowl.  That underlined MJC’s status as the team that barely missed a berth in the Northern California’s four-team playoff toward a state title.

The season formally ends Saturday with the showdown between City College of San Francisco (12-0) vs. Riverside (12-0) for the state championship. Kickoff is 1 p.m. at Mt. San Antonio College. CCSF seeks its eighth state title.

If the 2021 season taught us anything, it affirmed MJC’s arrival in Northern California’s top tier. The Pirates are 25-9 since 2018, the best three-year run in a century of MJC football.

Modesto Junior College's Gino Campiotti walked away from a full scholarship at Northern Arizona to once again call signals as a quarterback. Campiotti, a record-setting quarterback at Manteca High, is touted as one of the country's best dual-threat junior college quarterbacks.

“We have made it now. I feel we’re now one of the big boys,” said Stivers, the former Hilmar High Yellowjacket and UC Davis Aggie. He played under MJC coach Steve Da Prato and coached for both Da Prato and Sam Young, which means Stivers has been an important part of the Pirates for about 25 years.

Da Prato and Young set a solid foundation, but Stivers and his staff have raised the bar. Consider: In 2016, MJC won a Tier-1 league title for the first time since 1980; in 2019, their players totaled over $1 million in combined scholarship value to four-year programs; and between now and August, Modesto could see as many as 10 of its players advance to Division I schools.

Providing an upgraded bridge to the next level has been targeted by Stivers since he became the program’s leader. More important, he and the Pirates have established a bona fide culture and an identity.

Stivers’ wide-open spread offense, nicknamed the NASCAR, has been one of the state’s best for years. But more important, the Pirates’ success makes them a desired landing place for local talent. A record 13 Pirates were named to the All-Valley Conference team.

“We protect our boundaries and do it with the kids in this area,” Stivers said.

MJC’s final touchdown against Diablo Valley, a five-yard pass from Gino Campiotti to Dalton Durossette, demonstrates the Modesto attraction. Both were critical bouncebacks.

Campiotti, a record-setting quarterback at Manteca, walked away from a full scholarship to Northern Arizona. He wasn’t happy with his transition from QB to tight end at NAU and wanted to again call the signals. At MJC, he engineered the Pirates to the co-title and was named the league’s Offense MVP.

Durossette, a Central Catholic graduate from Ceres, signed a scholarship to pitch for Santa Clara but suffered a serious shoulder injury before his prep graduation. Anxious to compete, the all-around athlete found a new home as a punter and backup tight end for the Pirates.

Another fascinating example is Downey product Anderson Grover. He prepared to be a valuable target for Campiotti’s passes until a few weeks before the season opener, when he accepted a scholarship at Washington State (he eventually became a redshirt with three remaining years of eligibility).

Modesto has stayed true to its local roots. Here is a breakdown of the out-of-state players from Northern California’s “Big 6” rosters this season: San Francisco 22, San Mateo 11, Fresno 22, Butte 36, American River six and MJC six.

All the above, besides providing an outlet for players seeking to play beyond high school, also serve as so-called incubators for four-year schools. MJC, American River and, to a point, San Mateo, do it with mostly talent from their respective areas.

Predictably, Modesto’s expectations have risen. The Pirates reached NorCal’s Final Four in 2016 and ’19 but did not advance.  Modesto was beaten this fall by San Francisco, San Mateo and Fresno but enjoyed a win at Butte. All told, MJC owns victories over all Big 6 schools during Stivers’ term.

The final step, of course, is a state title. Stivers doesn’t know if it’s a compliment or a burden.

“The better you do, the pressure gets higher,” he said. “I think it’s self-imposed. We inflict the pain on our own.”

Overall, a good problem to have.