It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for both Escalon and Oakdale football programs.
Funny how the term rebuilding can mean different things at different schools.
The Cougars and Mustangs, both of whom suffered four regular-season losses this season, have reached the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section and are a win away from the section semifinals. The Mustangs have been there the past four seasons; the Cougars are gunning for their 12th trip this millennium.
We thought it would be great just to make the playoffs this year, said Escalon coach Mark Loureiro, whose team faces Hilmar on Friday in a rematch of their Week 8 Trans-Valley League clash, which the Yellowjackets won 28-14. Were playing with house money right now. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
According to Merzon, his team is peaking at just the right time.
Were exactly where we wanted to be at the start of the season, said Merzon, whose team faces Sacramento High (9-2) in a 1 p.m. matchup on Saturday. Were playing our best football right now.
Hey, its hard to win playoff games; ask Patterson, ask Manteca, which hadnt won one since 2007. Its not easy.
After the Mustangs opened the season with back-to-back losses, there was talk about this being a disappointing season for the Mustangs since theyd blown any chance at a return trip to the state bowl.
We dont allow anybody outside our program determine our goals and our level of success, said Merzon. Our goal is to win a league championship and pursue a section championship. We lost our first two games, but we grew as a program. All that talk about the state bowl was just gibberish.
Sacramento, the second-oldest public high school west of the Mississippi River, features a powerful passing attack led by sophomore quarterback Caden Voges, who has completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,309 yards and 39 TDs. His top targets are seniors Damen Wheeler Jr. (66 catches, 1,288 yards 16 TDs), the son of former NFL player Damen Wheeler, and Kyree Stephens (58-944-12).
Theyre big, fast and well-coached, said Merzon. Were going to have to play a great game if we want to have a chance; this is a great opportunity.
Escalon High is faced with a great opportunity a second crack at undefeated Hilmar.
Any time you get a rematch youve got to be excited about it, said Loureiro, 257-48 in his career.
This will be the fifth time that Hilmar and Escalon have met twice in a season. They are tied 2-2 in those meetings and, each time, the loser of the first meeting won the second.
We were right there last time, but we shot ourselves in the foot, said Loureiro. We had two or three really big penalties that hurt us. But (Jonathan OBrien) played very well he hurt us in the air and with his legs.
OBrien, who has thrown 22 TDs this season against just two interceptions, broke free a couple of long gainers against the Cougars, including a 45-yard scoring run.
Containing him this time around will be important.
Weve got to do more than contain him, said Loureiro. Weve got to make somebody else beat us.
Win or lose Friday night, Merzon believes this is as good as it gets.
These are football games that were not on our schedule, Merzon said. The kids love practicing and they love playing together. This extends a period of their lives that theyre going to remember forever.