MODESTO – All the Modesto Junior College Pirates threw three fingers into the air in a post-game celebration worthy of their feat.
They had just beaten nemesis Fresno City 39-29 to clinch their third straight Valley Conference title Saturday afternoon. Coach Rusty Stivers believes this has not been accomplished at MJC since Fred Earle’s teams of the 1930s, so it was all smile-emoji’s at MJC Stadium.
“We’ve gone back and forth with Fresno,” Stivers said. “To have three league titles, and four in the last eight years, is really exciting for our coaches and players.”
The victory once again vaults MJC (7-3, 5-0) into the four-team Northern California playoffs and an assignment at defending state champion San Mateo, which knocked off San Francisco. The Pirates have absorbed more than their share of frustration at CSM, but they’ll worry about that another day.
Why? Because they turned away a perennial rival in Fresno (6-4, 4-1), which didn’t flinch despite 18-point deficits in the second half.
In fact, the Rams positioned themselves for a field goal in the final minute which would have led to a nervy onside kick. Fortunately for Modesto, the kick was missed and quarterback Luke Weaver twice put his knee on the ground to keynote the party.
For the second straight year, MJC rallied in league play after a slow start. A three-game losing streak in September – to San Mateo, Butte and American River – led to a much-needed bye as the Pirates regrouped.
“I think it showed resilience,” said quarterback Luke Weaver, who threw two touchdown passes to cap a successful rehab from a serious injury a year ago. “Our guys bonded over those few weeks. We just found a common goal.”
The turnaround brought them to Saturday, where the defense – often a support player stuck in the background of the Pirates’ productive offense – took center stage. The Pirates rode pick-6 touchdowns by Kainoa Ontai and Garren Genilla and a goal line stand to turn back Fresno.
“We knew we were on it today,” Ontai said. “The defense came in and handled business, just like we are supposed to do.”
Ontai’s interception return covered 31 yards and put Modesto in front 14-0 in the first quarter. Genilla’s theft, however, was heaped in drama.
Fresno appeared to be back in the game early in the fourth quarter when Genilla intercepted, picked up blocks from teammates – including some finishing help by Julian Lopez -- for a 71-yard return that expanded the lead to 39-21.
Both interceptions were the result of withering pressure on the quarterback. The Rams passed for four touchdowns, three by Alec Trujillo, but there was a price.
“The defense played fantastic today,” Weaver said. “They did us a huge favor.”
Fresno dodged the early deficit, caused in part by Lyon Colon’s 68-yard burst up the middle for the game’s first points. The Rams drew even 14-14 and could have led if not for Modesto’s spirited goal line stand. On fourth-and-inches, Tamirr Bullock and teammates denied the Rams the TD.
The Pirates regained the lead on two field goals by Eduardo Zombran and pulled away by sandwiching the halftime break with touchdowns. A looping 49-yard pass from Weaver to Joseph Easterwood set up Kimoni Stanley’s three-yard score.
After halftime, MJC struck again when Weaver threw to Joey Stout, who pivoted away from the coverage and completed the 36-yard catch-and-run. Modesto led 32-14, though it eventually would be outgained by Fresno 442-431.
“We had some big plays on offense but struggled to move the ball consistently,” Stivers said. “Thankfully, the defense made huge plays.”
The stakes were huge. Neither Fresno nor Modesto would have received the at-large berth for the playoffs. Only a win would guarantee a league title and the bid for the NorCals.
Which further explains why the Pirates posed, fingers aloft, near their scoreboard at game’s end.
Fresno 0-14-7-8 – 29
Modesto JC 7-19-6-7—39
M – Lyon Colon 68 run (Eduardo Zombran kick)
M – Kainoa Ontai 31 interception return (Zombran kick)
F – Michael Runnels 28 pass from Alec Trujillo (JohnnyEnriquez kick)
F – Jaylen Garrison 17 pass from Trujillo (Enriquez kick)
M – FG Zombran 23
M – FG Zombran 29
M – Kimoni Stanley 3 run (pass failed)
M – Joey Stout 36 pass from Luke Weaver (kick failed)
F – Josiah Ayon 4 pass from Trujillo (Enriquez kick)
M – Garren Genilla 71 interception return (Zombran kick)
F – Gavin Nelson 49 pass from Ryan Markarian (Markarian run)
Records – Fresno 6-4, 4-1 in VC; MJC 7-3, 5-0 in VC