OAKDALE — Painted in large block letters on the Oakdale High Mustangs' bench are the words, "Heart Of A Champion."
That slogan is there for a reason.
Teams don't win six straight Valley Oak League titles and nine of the last 11 plus a state finals berth by accident. If so, Oakdale certainly would have submitted Friday night after trailing Sierra 14-0.
The Mustangs, responding like teams comfortable with success, recovered from their sluggish start to reel in the Timberwolves 24-17 on homecoming night.
"Champions die hard, man," Oakdale coach Trent Merzon proclaimed. "We made our reputation not just by winning games but by coming back."
If Oakdale's confidence waned, it would have showed this night. Seven days after a disheartening 35-20 loss to Manteca, the Mustangs again struggled early.
Sierra quarterback Jake Pruitt, a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder whose passes leave his hand with ease, started the game like he was acing an audition to an NCAA Division 1 school.
He completed nine of his first 10, and the 10th was a 12-yarder to Devin Nunez in the end zone. Before the first quarter was history, Pruitt (27 of 36, 240 yards) marched his team 65 and 66 yards and had thrown a pair of touchdown passes.
Sierra (5-2, 3-1) then reached the Oakdale 24-yard line. The homecoming for the Mustangs (4-3, 3-1) looked like a washout until those oversized hearts started to beat through their collective chests. Pruitt tossed incomplete on a 4th-and-20 from the 35. The game changed on the spot.
"Our coaches always tell us, 'Believe in yourselves,' " running back Brock Whiting said. "We really didn't feel like we were in trouble."
The warning signs were blinking, of course, until quarterback Dillon Tamburrino loosened the Sierra defense with pass completions downfield. Oakdale's dependable Wing-T gained traction and Whiting (24 carries, 99 yards, 2 TDs) raced 15 yards for the score that put Oakdale back in contention.
Sophomore Lane Trapp, promoted to the varsity mid-season, then chipped a 23-yard field goal before halftime. Oakdale, down only 14-10 at the break, grew larger in Sierra's rear-view mirror.
"Some teams may have approached this game like they were just trying to make the playoffs," Merzon said. "Our kids were still trying to win their seventh straight VOL title."
Oakdale slowed Sierra's up-tempo spread offense by stepping closer to the line of scrimmage and attaching themselves to the Timberwolves' receivers. The Mustangs' linebackers formed a virtual picket fence across the field backed by a single safety and those quick pitch-and-catch gains all but vanished. Pressure on Pruitt increased.
"I didn't make the right read on some of those schemes when I had the time," Pruitt said. "A couple of times I couldn't find the hole (in the coverage). I didn't do my job. Hard loss."
Sierra's first three possessions of the second half resulted in interceptions one by a running back and two by Pruitt. Kevin Corral returned the second pick to the Sierra 12, followed on the next play by Max Stevens' tackle-breaking rip for the go-ahead TD.
By then, Oakdale's offense was rolling. The Mustangs finished with 286 rushing yards, compared to Sierra's 12. Whiting's 1-yard dive increased the lead to 24-14 early in the fourth quarter.
The Timberwolves answered with a 30-yard field goal by Joshua Gonzalez and gave themselves one more chance. But a hook-and-lateral connection on fourth down to lineman Aaron Thiel missed a first down by about a foot.
Oakdale survived by not committing a turnover and staring a hole through a 14-point deficit. Reports of its demise were exaggerated.
"I was thinking about what I would say to my team down 21-0," Merzon said. "I worry sometimes about our kids handling all those expectations."
No worries, coach, when those hearts beat together.