OAKDALE — Around the household, Ty Malone gently is ribbed as the "Giant Killer."
Family banter allows for such fun, but the nickname points to more than a grain of truth about Malone, the starting center for the Oakdale High Mustangs.
The senior stands 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, not exactly a behemoth. Giving away some pounds to his opponent, often many pounds, is business as usual.
"It's nothing new for me or the football program," Malone said this week as the shadows lengthened at The Corral. "It's nothing new for Oakdale to play a bigger opponent."
Serra High of Gardena (13-2), Oakdale's adversary in the CIF State Division 2 championship game Saturday afternoon at the Home Depot Center, is fast, athletic, dynamic and making its third trip to Carson in the last four seasons.
Malone's matchup mirrors the two teams. He will deal with senior nose tackle Inoke Raikadroka, 6-foot and 255 pounds, a player coach Scott Altenberg called "my best all-around lineman."
Yes, Malone will spot his man about 80 pounds, a handicap Oakdale must handle across the entire line.
The mood at the Oakdale camp this week was spirited, however, and why not? The Mustangs will leap onto California prep football's biggest stage, a place for which the Mustangs have prepared for years.
What's a few pounds between state finalists?
Physically, Oakdale versus Serra must be billed as a mismatch. But Oakdale will refuse to play on those terms. The Mustangs (14-1) will do what they do best fight for each yard, claw for each tackle and shorten the game with its Wing-T attack.
"We'll try to exhibit our strengths and not play to their strengths," head coach Trent Merzon said as he wraps up his 13th season. "Some of the toughest people in America are under 6-feet tall. That is who we think we are."
Mustangs feel confident
Merzon barks commands while knowing his team already has made local history. No Oakdale football team the school was founded in 1892 ever has extended its season to mid-December.
It's Week 16, a full run for the NFL much less 17-year-old young men. The Mustangs understand all truths this week they're Northern California champions, they're breaking new ground, and few outside their locker room expect them to win Saturday.
Their response? Bring it on.
"To be honest, I was a little intimidated when the week started. It's a big show when you're going against Serra," senior safety Nik Garza said. "But after I watched them on film, I think we have a chance. I think the team knows it can win."
Garza, 5-8 and 170, also epitomizes Oakdale. Merzon says Garza and 160-pound junior Tanner Morgan are his best tandem of safeties since he became coach in 2000. Garza intercepted two passes during his team's playoff win over Benicia.
"When I was interviewed before the playoffs, I said I hoped we would do something special, but I didn't think it would be this," Garza said. "We're not tired. That's not the kind of team we are."
Serra has taken note. Most of its games evolve into high-speed shootouts. Oakdale's Wing-T, that old-school merging of power and misdirection, is a foreign concept to the Cavaliers.
"They (Oakdale) are tough kids who can move and are quick. We're going to have to be patient. Sometimes, size can be negated," Altenberg said. "This is a game played by 16- and 17-year-old kids. Emotions come into play. We expect a tough game."
There's no denying Serra's advantages. For starters, the Cavaliers will recognize their surroundings. They captured the 2009 state title by beating Marin Catholic 24-20 and lost the following year to Folsom 48-20.
"I told Trent that this week will be a ton of fun," Altenberg said. "We didn't go (to Carson) last year and it felt like something was missing."
Serra's speed is hard to miss. At its core is the 4x100-meter relay team that placed third in the state last spring corner Adoree' Jackson, running back Marques Rodgers, wide receiver Darrell Fuery and running back Malik Roberson.
Jackson, part of the team's rich junior class, is a five-star recruit who's been watched by Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Boise State's Chris Petersen. Then there's the dynamic quarterback Jalen Greene, a run-pass threat who's accounted for 32 touchdowns 23 passing and nine rushing.
Serra always possesses talent. Its ongoing dynasty was built in part by three current USC receivers the All-American Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and George Farmer. "We haven't struggled into this," Altenberg said. "We've still got some guys."
By the way, Serra also owns a win over iconic Long Beach Poly, SoCal's Division 1 qualifier this weekend. "Wrap your mind around that one for a second," Merzon quipped.
Storied programs eager to meet
Parallels exist in the Oakdale and Serra seasons. Both lost their games early Oakdale versus Oceanside, and Serra back-to-back to powerful Narbonne and Chaminade (it avenged that loss Nov. 30). Both carry long winning streaks.
Oakdale will try to control the tempo and the clock with its offense, while Serra plans to exploit its edges in size and speed.
"In 2009, we got to Carson by beating Oaks Christian, one of the top teams in the country," Altenberg said. "The next week, Marin Catholic sat on the ball the whole game and almost beat us."
Oakdale is not poor-mouthing its chances. Far from it. Its seniors the last two years have gone 27-2 with losses only to section champions Oceanside and Del Oro. Incredibly, the program rolls into its 44th game the past three seasons.
"We don't live with the 6-4 240-pound kid who can run a 4.6 40 and is going to UCLA. We don't have a single Division I commit," Merzon said. "I do know there's not a tougher football team still playing than us."
Competition can be complicated and dramatic. Oakdale must bus seven hours on Friday to its destination. For Serra, the drive is 5.3 miles.
The if-game, however, is tantalizing: If quarterback Spencer Thomas performs efficiently, if Malone can inspire his teammates in the middle of the line, if Garza and Co. create an early turnover ...
Merzon appeared loose and happy this week. A NorCal title banner already is in hand. His team never has let him down.
"You don't have to beat them 10 times," he stressed. "You only have to beat them once."
CIF State Championships
WHO: Serra of Gardena (13-2) vs. Oakdale (14-1)WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m.WHERE: Home Depot Center, CarsonTV: Comcast SportsNet California
WHO: Santa Fe Christian of Solano Beach (11-3) vs. Central Catholic (13-2)WHEN: Friday, 4 p.m.WHERE: Home Depot Center, CarsonTV: Comcast SportsNet California or Comcast SportsNet Plus (depends on provider)