The Capital Christian football team has a special gift for a Modesto reporter.
It's a T-shirt signed by all the players, their way of thanking the Modesto Bee's Rich Estrada for providing extra postseason motivation.
"He basically said before we played Modesto Christian that we didn't belong in the playoffs," Cougars coach Phil Grams said. "We made sure to put his articles on our bulletin board."
Capital Christian defeated Modesto Christian 41-0 in Friday's Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV opener, improving the fourth-seeded Cougars to 10-1.
"I was hoping we'd win seven ballgames and get a playoff game," said Grams, a second-year coach who replaced the popular spread with the physical fly offense he brought from Granite Bay, where he was a longtime assistant to good friend Ernie Cooper.
"I think the biggest thing is that our seniors really bought into our offseason program," Grams said. "They got bigger, stronger and faster. Now we like playing physical football."
Other than a 31-12 loss to Amador, no team was closer than two touchdowns to the Cougars during the regular season. Capital Christian coasted to the Golden Empire League championship and could create some additional buzz with a win Friday at home over No. 5 Los Banos (10-1).
What the Cougars lack in numbers they're up to 27 players after adding three from the junior varsity and two kickers from the section championship soccer team they make up for in talent.
Senior Quinton Kirk has rushed for 1,569 yards and 25 touchdowns and averages more than 10 tackles on defense at linebacker. Sophomore Justice Shelton-Mosley has nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions as a free safety.
Grams, who coached flybacks Devon Wylie (Kansas City Chiefs) and Peyton Thompson (Atlanta Falcons) at Granite Bay, calls Shelton-Mosley the best he has coached at the position.
Capital Christian also has large-school talent on its line.
Junior Nifae Lealao, a 6-foot-4, 270-pounder, is a national recruit with offers from Oregon, USC and Stanford. Joining Lealao on the line are seniors Brandon Roznos (6-0, 251) and Andrew Peterson (6-3, 220), junior Matt Richards (6-2, 245) and sophomore Trey Belton (6-5, 220).
Capital Christian is the second-smallest school (377 students) in the Division IV field, in which Placer (11-0) and Central Catholic of Modesto (9-2) are huge favorites.
"Los Banos is really good, and they've got 45 guys on their roster," Grams said. "If we can stay healthy, win the battle of attrition, and come out with a win, heck, yeah, we've got a shot" at the section title.
Another dynamic duo Capital Christian's Kirk and Shelton-Mosley aren't the only imposing one-two offensive punch leading a surprise team in Division IV.
No. 10 Center (9-2), which plays Friday at No. 2 Argonaut (11-0), is led by senior running back D'Juan Bellaire (1,941 rushing yards and 28 total touchdowns) and junior quarterback Tyrel Anderson (1,272 passing yards and 13 touchdowns; 782 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns).
Maturation process Two reasons Antelope (10-1) won its first playoff game in program history and will host No. 5 Buhach Colony (9-2) of Atwater in a Division II game Friday: The Titans' all-senior offensive line, called "The Force" (Daren Echeveria, Leonard Hazewood, Nathan Rhodes, Christian Pinedo and Tyler Moore), and junior quarterback Tyler McCombs, who has passed for 1,736 yards and 20 touchdowns.
"He's intelligent, has a strong arm, and he's got a swagger about him," said coach Matt Ray, a former high school and college quarterback.