OAKDALE -- A soft rain falls as the Oakdale High Mustangs gather before dawn.
Sunrise is still a rumor on the horizon when Guy Fowler, the cross country coach, unlocks the gate to The Corral. The team walks past the Mustang statue without much comment. Too early for any serious conversation.
It's Wednesday, Speed Wednesday for the Mustangs, and for 40 minutes Fowler will lead them through various sprints up and down the synthetic surface.
True to its Cowboy Capital of the World heritage, Oakdale probably gets more things done before breakfast than any other team. The Mustangs meet four days a week at this hour, three times for weightlifting and once for running, nearly all year long.
"We're always together," said junior Tanner Morgan, a starting safety and the school's student body president. "We've created that bond."
That scene the football team in motion before the city awakens illustrates why Oakdale plays for the state Division 2 title today in Carson against Serra of Gardena.
No one can pinpoint exactly when Oakdale evolved from a standard-issue successful football program to an elite power. This much we know: After nine Valley Oak League titles and a pair of Sac-Joaquin Section championships during Trent Merzon's 13-year tenure as coach, the Mustangs have raised the bar to unprecedented heights.
About 1,500 lined city streets to welcome home the Mustangs after their 27-24 victory over Clayton Valley last weekend to win the NorCal title. The Mustangs surely will be greeted as heroes regardless of today's result. Any public school that earns a trip to Carson deserves a boatload of praise.
Clearly, the Oakdale template is a proven winner.
For starters, Oakdale is the fourth-largest, single-school city in the section behind Davis, Rancho Cordova and El Dorado Hills. This alone counts as a major advantage in terms of fund-raising, tradition and connection between city and school.
While larger cities such as Tracy, Manteca and Turlock were forced to build new high schools, Oakdale population of about 21,000 hardlined its one-school stance. It even razed a small neighborhood to make room for more athletic fields and classrooms.
"We don't have divided effort, and it's cost-effective," defended Marc Malone, the superintendent of the Oakdale Joint Unified School District. "This community still wants one rallying point. We expect to stay a single-school town for at least the next 20 years or so."
Malone's presence at the top of the school-district administration speaks to the football program's stature. He served as the Mustangs' head coach from 1989 to 1999 and leapfrogged from the sideline to the office. He also continued another Oakdale testimonial. Only Oakdale grads have headed the football program since 1959: Dale Clipper, Jim Gilbert, Mike Riley, Malone and Merzon.
Mike House, a football star from the 1970s, sits on the school board. Dave Bacigalupi is the current athletic director.
Then there's the coaching staff: Merzon and assistants Hondo Arpoika (winding down his final season on the staff), Tim Meyer, Zack Quaccia (started for Stanford in the 2000 Rose Bowl), Alex Anderson and Gary Asmundson. Each is an OHS alum who donned helmet and shoulder pads for the red and gold.
All these men send an unspoken message to today's Mustangs: You're part of something much larger than yourself.
"That group is a brotherhood. The idea is that sustained excellence will occur through a good work ethic," Malone said. "That life skill is passed onto them and will last longer than glory from victory."
The extension of that leadership are the young men gasping for air, beating sunrise to the punch, keeping their edge and staying ahead of the pack.
"This year's team amazes me," Merzon said. "Just to have the name 'Oakdale' in the lineup down there is thrilling. It's a testament to what we stand for."
It starts in Oakdale in the dark.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2302.