SACRAMENTO -- They don't look anything alike but, wow, are they similar.
Right to the core: Old school, gritty, hard boiled. Successful, feared and revered.
Mark Loureiro and Trent Merzon are home-grown products from the Valley, whose collective blood source continues to be the football programs that they nurture, massage and unleash every fall.
Loureiro is a bear of a man with a shock of combed-down black hair with gray sprinkles and a goatee. He coaches the Escalon Cougars, a program in a Sac-Joaquin Section championship round this weekend for the 14th time in its storied history, bracing for rival Central Catholic in a Division 4 showdown. And the man doesn't bound from place to place with a hop and a skip. He looks like someone right out of a crash scene, with an ailing hip. He shuffles to and from. His coaching buddies say he does the shuffle to look tougher than he really is.
Merzon still is quarterback fit and trim, and smooth on top with a shaved head. He can be engaging but also has a piercing stare and a mustache as if he was an extra right out of a Clint Eastwood western.
And no wonder. His Oakdale Mustangs play home games in "The Corral," the place to be on so many Friday nights as the social epicenter of town.
Merzon's program is in a section title game this weekend for the 11th time, taking on upstart Vista del Lago (Folsom) tonight in a D3 affair.
The coaches are synonymous with winning and impacting teenage lives.
As fierce as they can be on game night, a pat on the back and a wink and a smile for a job well done does wonders for their athletes' esteem. To their pupils, these men are too important to disappoint.
"We look up to coach," Oakdale quarterback Spencer Thomas said during a media gathering in Sacramento on Sunday. "He's been there."
They've both been there, done that. The coaches lead their alma maters, former quarterbacks now running the show. And in a show of coaching evolution, Loureiro and Merzon have even opened the playbook a bit this season.
Egads! A trick play here and there from these guys? Believe it.
Nothing like an old salt showing new colors to officially throw the playoffs into a different spin.
But Loureiro and Merzon are more than just coaches. They both teach a full load of classes, expressing as much enjoyment in that place of learning as the football field.
"I love the whole experience at Oakdale," Merzon said.
Loureiro took snaps for his coaching father, Bob Loureiro, in the 1970s. Bob coached football there from 1968-85 and manned third base as baseball coach for 42 seasons. Mark Loureiro has coached Escalon since 1989 and has fashioned a 250-40-1 record. He said this group is as special as any he's supervised. That's some statement considering his 2010 club won a CIF state championship, a moment best defined when he held the trophy high and proclaimed it a victorious day for every small-town and public school in the land.
The Cougars graduated 19 starters off last year's section runner-up team and merely retooled the Wing-T machine. They are 11-2, avenging an opening-night loss to Los Banos with a four-overtime thriller for milestone win No. 250. That came a week after what Loureiro deemed his greatest upset win by topping 11-0 Placer in Auburn, the heavy pre-tournament pick. Now it's a shot against Central Catholic, winners of a section-record 15 titles, in what the old coach deems the classic public versus private-school showdown.
Loureiro is second all time in section wins and within striking distance of the all-time section wins mark of 258 held by Max Miller, mostly at Cordova in the 1980s.
And he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
"I thought I'd be the baseball coach at Escalon, but my dad held that job for 42 years. Couldn't get rid of him," Louriero cracked. "So I got into football and couldn't be happier. I couldn't imagine coming to school every day and not coaching. It's what I do. When it's all over, it'll be really sad. It's been such a big part of my life.
"Some day, I might even get my hip fixed and coach pain free."
Merzon may someday have a statue mustache, dome and all erected at Oakdale. He's carved out a similar legacy in 12 fewer seasons. He's gone 128-31-1 with the Mustangs since taking over as head coach in 2000 with six successive Valley Oak League championships. His current edition is 12-1, typically strong in the trenches and on defense with a power running game. He's been with the program as a coach in some capacity for 22 seasons.
Merzon quarterbacked Oakdale to section D2 title games in 1984 and '85. He winces when thinking back to those tough losses, and at any notion that his teams have been good but not great in recent title runs.
Oakdale is motivated to win a section title for their coach and their town after excruciatingly painful setbacks in each of the previous two D3 title games to Del Oro. The losses sting, Merzon admits, but he also recognizes the larger picture here.
"It's just a game, really," he said. "We have to remember that. We should never be remembered for just one game. It's not who you are."
So what is it about small-town football and larger-than-life coaches that make it all so unique?
For one thing, what else is there to do for teenage lads on Friday nights? Athletes stand tall in small towns as football heroes, carrying the name of their town on their athletic garb. The coaches demand that they represent their communities in a positive light.
"These towns are great places to grow up," Merzon said. "The community embraces the placers and the players embrace the community. It's still special. Always will be. It's always a big deal."
Merzon added later with a hearty laugh, "Maybe there's not enough to do down there."
One youngster who can't get enough of the small-town life is Merzon's son, Mickey. The 8-year-old is a fixture on the sideline on game night in an Oakdale jersey. He even writes a weekly blog on football on the team's site Oakdalefootball.com.
During Sunday's media dinner at Sacramento State, guest speaker and former Fresno-area high school star and USC lineman Mike Lamb asked scores of players from all the section finalists if they are weight-room regulars, to gauge the commitment. Hands everywhere shot up. He then asked if anyone has not been been to the weight room in the last week or so. One hand went up.
Lamb peppered the lad for his lack of focus, and the reply came in a young voice, "I'm only 8 years old!"
It was Mickey Merzon.
Loureiro is so well liked and respected that even his opponent tomorrow gets a kick out of him. Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa ribbed Loureiro at the same media event for his limp, his look and his legacy.
"I should at least be able to beat him in a race now," Canepa said. "Last year, they beat us in the playoffs. I didn't want to talk to him for two weeks. I wanted to kill him. He texted me and said it's only a game. 'Yeah, easy for you to say. You won.' He's one of my best friends. Love him."
"This is the eighth time we've played him," Canepa said. "He's won all but two. The law of averages say I'm due."
No. 1 Oakdale (12-1) vs. No. 2 Vista del Lago (12-1): The Mustangs make a third straight trip to a final, after losing to Del Oro last two years. Vista's never been to a title game, but the Eagles are flying behind soph QB Matt Jimison (37 TDs, 63 percent completion) and six players with at least 20 catches. Vista scored in the final minute to win a semifinal, and its schedule was among the weakest in the bracket two wins were over D5 and D6 schools.
Few teams in Sacramento run a Wing-T, and even fewer run it right, and Oakdale's worn down its foes in the second half. Oakdale beat Benicia's pass attack two weeks ago, but Vista has more threats. The Mustangs have been able to control the clock, using QB Spencer Thomas, FB Nikk Ryan and WB Marcus Northcutt to pound away at the defense. Rain and wind will benefit Oakdale, and its defense has silenced three different schemes in three playoff games speed and power running games, as well as a passing game.
No. 8 Escalon (11-2) vs. No. 6 Central Catholic (11-2): It's the third year in a row they meet, Escalon dominating the second half each time to upset the Raiders. This is the best CC team since Louis Bland took it to the State Bowl in 2007, while Escalon is a story folks are falling in love with: A small, public school taking on the parochial dynasty loaded with college talent.
RB Rey Vega has 986 yards and 24 TDs in seven games, and is showing that same burst of speed that led him to 3,500 yards and 42 TDs the last two years at Davis. He and Ray Lomas (1,650, 26 TDs) have each run for 100 yards in six of seven games since Vega's return. Nathan Chunn has run for a school-record 2,154 yards, with 34 TDs. A workhorse, he has 87 carries for 563 yards and 10 TDs in three playoff wins. Coach Mark Loureiro has said there will be no limit on his workload Saturday the more Chunn runs, the better the odds for an Escalon upset.