OAKDALE — Trent Merzon was at the counter of a Starbucks last week, getting ready to pay for his morning Joe, when a young lady he recognized as an Oakdale High junior cut to the front of the line.
"Coach Merzon, this one's on me," she said, per Merzon's recollection. "Thanks for all you've done for the school."
You've heard about the famous athletes who for the rest of their lives can't buy a drink in their adopted towns? In places like Oakdale, you get the perkle-down effect.
The fact that Central Catholic won and Oakdale lost state champion-ship football bowl games last weekend in Carson will be what's printed on Web sites and in bowl game programs through perpetuity. But mere scores like 66-7 and 42-15 tell nothing on the impact these kids have had on their communities.
Yes, private schools can claim communities. They're not marked by city limits, but function as communities through the interaction of alumni near and far, through local support and through sponsoring churches.
Central Catholic's community was reinvigorated in a very tangible way during the Raiders' run to the school's first state title. It filled the home half of the stadium at Lincoln High for the NorCal title game and filled more than 800 seats at the Home Depot Center last Friday.
But this is a school used to winning, having claimed 16 Sac-Joaquin Section titles, and having made a previous trip to a state bowl game.
So from that standpoint, while it's impossible to fully measure what Friday's win meant long-term to the Raiders' community was it just another great season in this three-decade run? there was no hiding what it meant to coach Roger Canepa.
He's enjoyed his own lengthy string of success at Sonora and Calaveras and has the second-most wins (172) among the district's active coaches behind Escalon's Mark Loureiro (250,) with Merzon third at 129. But since Canepa took over the Central job from Mike Glines in 2008, the Raiders had not won a section title.
In talking with Canepa frequently since the end of the regular season, I got the idea that he believed he needed to take this team to a state title to somehow validate his position at Central Catholic and in a larger realm earn a spot among the area's elite football coaches.
On several occasions within recent conversations Canepa would throw in comments like "You know, I'm a pretty good football coach," at which times I'd try to be quick to remind him nobody was questioning that notion.
But on Tuesday, he explained that a little better. Yes, there had been a chip on his shoulder.
"I always knew I could coach, but if you don't win the section title people perceive you as something less than a good coach," Canepa said.
"Now that I've won a section title and a state title, am I a better coach? I'm the same coach I was five years ago. I'm a good coach, we had a great football team and this year we didn't have any major injuries."
Meanwhile, back at The Corral ...
There were very few dry eyes among the Oakdale football players immediately after the loss to Serra, but two hours later all of those same young faces wore pride-etched smiles as they inhaled pizza during an impromptu party thrown by Mustangs' parents and fans.
"Everybody all week kept telling me to enjoy this, and I really didn't know what they meant," Merzon said right after the game. "But now I see it's about getting another week with our kids, and for them to get another week with each other to enjoy this phase in their life. They'll look back on this fondly the rest of their lives.
"I can't tell you how many e-mails and texts I got this week from people saying how proud they are of us and it doesn't matter whether we win or lose down here. That warms my heart, and that's why I coach."
In many ways those sentiments apply to every football program. On the other hand, perhaps it's fitting Central Catholic and Oakdale got to play in bowls in the same year.
Among large schools, no football program in the district can match the Mustangs' community-wide devotion. Among small schools, only Escalon matches Central Catholic's community support.
There is no better measure of success than the support a program receives from its community. Not wins or losses, not blue banners or NorCal or state trophies.
"The kids get it," Merzon said. "The community gets it. We've been blessed, and I'm blessed by being surrounded by people who understand the priorities.
"Life's not about winning a football game."