Modesto Junior College quarterback Danny Velasquez led the Pirates to the state Final Four and could be rewarded with an opportunity at soon-to-be Division-I Tarleton State in Texas.

Team-first: MJC football plots its way forward after reaching NorCal final

Ron Agostini

The story of the 2019 Modesto Junior College football season begins with one basic truth: The Pirates have earned a place on the elite stage.

It ended badly for MJC – a dismal 41-0 loss at College of San Mateo in the Northern California final. That said, it also meant that the Pirates (9-3) reached the State Final Four, their longest and most impressive run since the 11-0 1980 team.

“We were a final four team in the state of California,” MJC coach Rusty Stivers said. “Which is a huge deal.”

The 2019 Pirates featured a class of sophomores who won 17 games over two years. Only two other MJC classes matched that success -- the 1979-80 and 1994-95 MJC teams.

Clues to MJC’s ascendancy have been seen this decade. Stivers built a prolific offense, one of the state’s most productive, even before he became head coach five years ago. It led to the Pirates’ rolling to a Valley Conference title in 2016.

The Modesto Junior College offense averaged 34 points and 459 yards per game, the latter fifth-best among California’s 67 community college teams. The attack was led by quarterback Danny Velasquez (above), one of the state’s most lethal run-pass threats.

Modesto raised the bar in 2019. It began with a season-opening win over Laney, the 2018 state champion, and continued with the Pirates’ second win over City College of San Francisco in barely nine months. The Pirates twice knocked off American River, the latter in the playoffs leading to the NorCal title game.

The Pirates absorbed a tough blow in their 26-24 loss to nemesis Fresno, which cost MJC the league title. Regardless, their success combined with their rigorous schedule brought home the at-large berth in the four-team NorCal bracket.

“Only two other teams school history have done what this team has done the last two years,” Stivers praised. “Our motto was ‘a team-first mentality.’”

The MJC offense averaged 34 points and 459 yards per game, the latter fifth-best among California’s 67 community college teams. The attack was led by quarterback Danny Velasquez, one of the state’s most lethal run-pass threats.

In 2017, Velasquez – a graduate of Turlock High -- became Modesto’s first true freshman in over a decade to start at quarterback. After he spent the 2018 season at Portland State, he returned and completed a memorable two seasons in MJC blue. Velasquez finished his JC career with 3,908 passing yards and 34 touchdowns, and added 1,550 rushing yards and 19 TDs.

He was slowed, however, by knee and shoulder injuries through most of this season. Velasquez played through a shoulder injury during the playoff win over ARC and did not practice the week before the NorCal final. He made only a cameo appearance in the title game.

The loss at San Mateo, which marked the first time MJC was shut out in 16 years, stung the Pirates’ pride. They netted only 141 yards and suffered five turnovers as the Bulldogs – who eventually dropped the state final to Riverside 31-14 – feasted on the errors.

"He was not close to full strength in either San Mateo game," Stivers said. "He was our guy."

Disappointment aside, the season-ending loss also was instructive. The Pirates struggled against San Mateo’s special teams. The Bulldogs returned two kickoffs for touchdowns during the 35-12 loss on Oct. 5 and, in the season finale, parlayed a punt return and a botched punt snap into TDs.

Losing at CSM’s hilltop stadium overlooking the bay is no disgrace. The Bulldogs haven’t lost at home since 2015.  For their part, the Pirates are no longer out-classed by CSM. They own wins at home over the Bulldogs in 2016 and ’18.

But to continue moving ahead against the region’s best, the Pirates must re-boot their special teams.

“San Mateo is No. 1 in Northern California and they’re light years ahead of us in special teams,” Stivers said. “If you compare their kicker, punter and kick and punt returners with other teams we’ve played, it’s not even close. We have to be able to kick the ball into the end zone for touchbacks and increase our punting average.”

Another thing: Modesto is 2-8 vs. Fresno since the Pirates returned to the Valley in 2010.  That will be another barometer for MJC.

“We’ve set the bar really high,” Stivers said. “We’re in good company.”

Several MJC players will decide their future football destinations in the near future. A snapshot look:

-- Velasquez: A possibility is Tarleton State (Texas), which upgrades to Division I next fall.

-- Defensive lineman Antonio Pule: Hawaii has shown interest along with Valparaiso, Alabama A&M and Division 2 schools.

-- Linebacker Ferrin Manuleleua: The Pirates’ leader on defense has been linked to Louisiana-Lafayette, along with D-2 schools.

-- Tight end Rory Hanson: Hanson, a sophomore, is the most surprising MJC prospect. The Modesto Christian alum didn’t play much as a freshman and didn’t earn a starting berth in 2019 until around mid-season. His stats – nine receptions for 202 yards and two touchdowns – are modest. Stivers thinks Hanson is a late-bloomer and, at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he fits the profile of a classic tight end. Others agree. Hanson has received offers from Fresno State, UMass, UTEP and Sam Houston State. “The tight end position is coming back.  Rory is a true attached (to the offensive line) tight end. He has his hands in the dirt. That’s where he is going to flourish.”