STOCKTON -- For one of the first times in his life, Oakdale High football coach Trent Merzon was speechless.
He had no words to adequately describe what had just happened that allowed his team to beat Clayton Valley 27-24, or to articulate what it meant a NorCal Division 2 championship and the school's first berth in a state bowl game.
"You can't put perspective on this right now," Merzon said. "I just can't believe our kids and their unbelievable effort. The community turnout was great and they got loud at just the right times. How did we just do that?"
Saturday's win in front of about 7,000 fans at Lincoln High puts the Mustangs (14-1) into next Saturday's Division 2 state championship bowl at Carson's Home Depot Center. Oakdale will meet Serra High of Gardena in a 4 p.m. kickoff.
Mustang-born and Mustang-bred to run the Wing-T, to grind opponents into submission with run after run, Oakdale beat the Eagles through the air.
Senior quarterback Spencer Thomas completed 10 of 19 passes for 225 yards and four touchdowns, including three in the second half after Clayton Valley took a 9-7 halftime lead.
But despite trailing at halftime, Oakdale found confidence it might not have had at the opening kickoff.
Everything about this game was new, since this is the first season of regional play. And all the teams knew of each other was that both liked to pound the ball.
Clayton Valley certainly did that with a double-wing attack that at times mimicked the Flying Wedge formation banned by the NCAA in 1894 because of its brutality. The Eagles had the perfect back to squeeze-in behind that wedge in Joe Protheroe, a 6-1, 205-pound bruiser who entered the game with 2,895 rushing yards this season.
He carried 19 times for 78 yards in the first half, then suffered an ankle injury on his 23rd carry of the game, midway through the third quarter, and did not return, having gained 95 yards.
Oakdale already had retaken the lead by that point by opening the second half on a 14-play, 66-yard march that took 6:35 off the clock. Thomas threw toward Landon Ichord in the end zone, but Protheroe tipped the ball into the hands of Austin Jones for a 14-9 Oakdale lead.
"We knew they were tough, but at halftime we knew we were getting the ball first so we just came out and pounded," Thomas said.
Clayton Valley would go on to score and get a two-point conversion on the drive in which Protheroe was injured, but on the very next play Oakdale picked on his replacement at defensive back.
Thomas took a five-step drop and threw a fly pattern up the left side to Jones, who went in untouched to complete the 70-yard scoring play for a 20-17 lead with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
The task still was to stop Clayton Valley, and that was accomplished on the final play of the third quarter when Eddie Machado hauled in his second interception of the game, giving the Mustangs possession at their own 47.
Four plays later Oakdale was back in the end zone, as Dewayne Finney outjumped his defender to grab a high throw from Thomas for a 30-yard score and a 27-17 lead.
"The passes were there for us tonight, probably because they were focusing so much on the run," Thomas said. "When we started passing it oped everything up and our offense worked."
The Eagles (12-2) weren't finished and rammed the ball downfield, needing seven running plays to move 72 yards and pull within 27-24.
There was still plenty of time left 7:48 and plenty of drama to play out.
Oakdale needed only three first downs to run out the clock, but only got one, then turned the ball over at midfield with 4:25 left on a failed fourth-down fake punt.
"That probably wasn't a good call," Merzon said.
It left everything up to the defense, and when four Clayton Valley running plays gained nothing, Oakdale was able to take over and run all but 26 seconds off the clock before punting.
Clayton Valley, which completed only one pass for five yards in the second half, took over at the 20 and had no chance, leaving ample time for the Oakdale faithful to count down the final seconds before storming the field.
"We had some doubt coming in, and right now we're emotionally and physically tired," Merzon said. "Our kids played one heck of a football game tonight and now we'll pick up the pieces to see what's left and get ready for next week."
Yes, Oakdale, there is a next week.
Northern California Division 2 Bowl
at Lincoln High School's Spanos Stadium, Stockton
Oakdale 27, Clayton Valley 24
Clayton Valley 6 3 8 7 24
Oakdale 0 7 13 7 27
CV Joe Protheroe 12 run (kick blocked)
O Eddie Machado 30 pass from Spencer Thomas (Sean Harrity kick)
CV FG Garret Nelson 30
O Austin Jones 14 pass from Thomas (Harrity kick)
CV Tanner Ware 7 run (Jesse Medrano pass from Mike Protheroe)
O Jones 70 pass from Thomas (Harrity kick)
O DeWayne Finney 30 pass from Thomas (kick blocked)
CV Michael Protheroe 2 run (Nelson kick)
MVP: Oakdale's Spencer Thomas, a three-year starter who carried a 36-6 career record into the game, fires 4 TD passes and throws for 225 yards. His 70-yard toss to Austin Jones put Oakdale up 21-17 and it never gave up that lead. He finished 10 of 19, averaging 22.5 yards per completion.
Offensive MVP: Receiver Austin Jones caught two of Thomas' four TDs, including an acrobatic dive in the back of the end to catch a ball that ricocheted off one of his teammates and a DB at the goal line. He landed just inside the back end line with the ball. He also beat his DB on a deep crossing pattern for a 70-yard score.
Defensive MVP: Oakdale DB Eddie Machado had two interceptions, one in the end zone in the second quarter. He caught a 30-yard TD minutes later, for Oakdale's first score. He also picked a pass on the last play of the third quarter and Thomas tossed a TD to DeWayne Finney minutes later.
Decision of the game: Oakdale coach Trent Merzon recognized CV was focused on stopping the running part of the Wing-T, so he opened up the passing attack and exploited CV's untested DBs. He put a lot of faith in his QB and receivers, and that was rewarded with a win.
Mistake of the game: CV's unwillingness to get Joe Protheroe rest. He was the best player on the field when healthy, but had 23 carries early in the third quarter and then left with an ankle injury. He was being hit by five or six defenders on some plays, and also took a beating on defense. He was on the sideline for CV's final 2 possessions.
Stat of the game: That would be 95, the number of yards Protheroe had when he left in the third quarter. He entered with 2,895 yards and 34 TDs in 13 games, including 425 yards in a playoff win, and had been unstoppable in the Bay Area.