SACRAMENTO — In many ways, there was no way for the 2013 football season to end fairly for Oakdale High.
The Mustangs finished last season in a state bowl game, having won the school’s first NorCal title. This team, even if it had gone on to win a section title, was not going to be invited to the third season.
So this Oakdale season was destined to end cruelly, one way or another, but there was no way it could have foreseen the agony of Saturday’s 40-21 loss to Sacramento in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 quarterfinal game.
The Mustangs did everything they needed to do to win. They ran 78 plays, including 69 on the ground to keep the ball out of the hands of the explosive Dragons. They shook off an early big play to eventually build a 21-13 lead late in the third quarter.
But they also did things highly un-Mustang-like. Four turnovers and 12 penalties kept Oakdale from sealing the win, so it will be Sacramento, 10-2 after scoring the game’s final 27 points, advancing to host Christian Brothers in next Saturday’s semifinals.
“We made some uncharacteristic mistakes,” said Oakdale coach Trent Merzon, putting a cap on his team’s 7-5 season. “We put the ball on the ground and we had bad penalties. Sacramento didn’t turn it over as much and for whatever reason they didn’t have as many penalties. We can complain all we want about things not going our way, but you make your own breaks.”
And yes, Oakdale played its way into a No. 13 seed with one-point losses to Turlock and Enterprise to open the season, and a perplexing late October blowout loss to Kimball. When you’re a 13 seed, you play on the road, and road teams have to make their own breaks.
Instead, the breaks mostly went in Sacramento’s favor, including several where the Dragons simply stepped up to make the big plays.
Oakdale, after allowing a 60-yard scoring pass on the Dragons’ first play, fought back to take a 14-13 halftime lead on two short runs by Max Stevens. The final score came at the end of an 18-play, 74-yard march, with Stevens crossing the goalline with only 3.7 seconds left in the half.
How much did Oakdale control the opening 24 minutes? It ran an Oregon-like 54 plays from scrimmage, including 46 rushes, and gained 14 first downs. When Brock Whiting scored with 4:26 left in the third quarter on a six-yard run, the Mustangs led 21-13 against a tiring Dragons’ defense.
Then, in Merzon’s words, Oakdale blinked.
Sacramento needed less than two minutes to answer with its own touchdown to narrow the gap to 21-20, and on the ensuing kickoff Kyron Basped, a junior safety, stripped the ball from Mustangs’ return man and sprinted 30 yards for the go-ahead score.
Fourteen points in 14 seconds.
“This was a game for the taking,” Merzon said. “I still don’t know what happened. We were up eight points and you blink your eyes and you’re down six.
“Maybe we lost our composure as coaches and players and this is an easy place to lose your composure, but the bottom line is that we blinked. Great teams can’t blink.”
But they can answer and Oakdale responded with a 12-play drive that led to a fourth-and-goal at the Sacramento 1 with 10 minutes left in the game. The Mustangs ran the play that worked all day - a lead dive with junior Brock Whiting carrying. Whiting would finish with 144 yards on 26 carries, but on this play he was stopped.
“It was just a goalline play so everybody scrunched in,” Whiting said. “I thought I had it. The coaches always say that football can be simplified and sometimes you just have to make plays. When we had the chance, sometimes we didn’t make the plays today and that was the difference.”
With the ball and all the momentum, Sacramento moved 99 yards in eight plays for a 33-21 lead with 7:26 left, and scored again with 2:41 left after Oakdale’s fourth turnover to make the final score somewhat lopsided.
The game certainly wasn’t one-sided, with the Dragons outgaining Oakdale 424-411. Sacramento quarterback Caden Voges completed 14 of 24 passes for 277 yards, but also was picked off twice.
“It was one of the most fun games I’ve ever played in and the close ones always are the best ones,” Whiting said. “The score separated at the end, but until then this was awesome.”
And to be fair, these Mustangs, while saddled with the burden of following a state bowl team, didn’t have the depth of talent as their predecessor. But they might have shared the same heart.
“Today was about one football game and it hurts to lose this one football game,” Merzon said. “In March, yeah, we’ll look back and say that it was pretty cool being here. Today, for our seniors, it hurts. Happy to be here, sure, but today hurts.”