A state championship hasn’t changed the DNA of the Oakdale High football team.
After executing one of the most lopsided victories in CIF State Bowl history, coach Trent Merzon insists the Mustangs aren’t talking about a repeat.
Not yet, anyway.
“It’s process versus prize,” Merzon said. “We just focus on the process over here. Our kids want to go up the hill and play Sonora again. That’s where it starts for us.”
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The Mustangs open the season at three-time defending Mother Lode League champion and ancient rival Sonora on Aug. 25. The Wildcats humbled the eventual state champions in their season opener last fall, a game also played at Dunlavy Field.
Sonora intercepted Oakdale four times en route to a 27-13 win in their 100th meeting.
The road won’t get any easier for the Mustangs, who close the non-conference portion of their schedule with El Capitan on Sept. 1 and Folsom on Sept. 8.
Oakdale entered into a one-year agreement with the mighty Bulldogs of the Sierra Foothill League. Folsom, which produced Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Browning of Washington and Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams, is a three-time Division I section champion.
Merzon didn’t accept the game until his players signed off on it.
“I told (Folsom coach Kris Richardson) let me talk to my kids first,” Merzon said. “The next morning, they were like, ‘Absolutely, let’s do this.’
“They’ve listened to us about embracing challenges. Dealing with the spread, no one does it better. Win, lose or draw, we’ll come out of this game better. I know we’re a huge underdog, but it’s one game. The whole thing for us to focus on the process, not the prize.”
Last season, Oakdale didn’t hit its stride until VOL play. The Mustangs lost a thriller to Manteca – a game decided on a throw into the end zone in the final seconds – and carved out a share of the league crown with a romp over Central Catholic.
If the Mustangs are to threaten again at the section and state level, Merzon understands the process starts in the VOL. Oakdale opens on the road at East Union (Sept. 22) and Weston Ranch (Sept. 29), before welcoming the Buffaloes in a clash of defending section champions.
Manteca is the reigning king of Division IV.
Three of Oakdale’s final five games are at The Corral, beginning with Manteca on Oct. 6. They’ll also host Sierra (Oct. 13) and Lathrop (Oct. 27). The Mustangs travel to Kimball (Oct. 20) and close the regular season at Central Catholic (Nov. 3).
“We know how good the Valley Oak League is going to be,” Merzon said. “We know how good the Buffaloes are. We know how good Central is. We tell the boys, ‘You’ll hear words like repeat-title. You’ll hear all the buzz.’ But for us, it always returns to Manteca and Central.
“That’s what beautiful about our schedule and what we got going. It keeps kids paying attention on a daily basis. Our kids understand a state title is within grasp if we can take care of the VOL. If we can beat Manteca and Central, it makes it realistic.”
Oakdale will have the firepower to make another run.
The offensive and defensive lines are anchored by seniors Nico Sarale and Matt Kjeldgaard, respectively. Sarale has been offered Division I scholarships by nine schools, the most in program history. Among his suitors are Nevada, Sacramento State, Fresno State and the military academies.
Kjeldgaard has verbally committed to Fresno State, spurning offers from San Jose State and Sacramento State.
Sarale will protect quarterback Mark Dickson, who has added weight to his wiry 6-foot-2 frame. Dickson is the triggerman in the Mustangs’ uptempo Wing-T offense. On a team full of straight-A students, Dickson might be the brightest.
“He wants to be a doctor,” Merzon said. “He’s just a great kid for our program.”
The Wing is stocked with breakout backs, too.
Cameron Cherry and Bronson Harmon return, while former linebacker Josh Jacobson will replace Will Semone, The Bee’s 2016 Player of the Year who rushed for a Stanislaus District record 2,851 yards last fall.
Merzon said Jacobson is the fastest fullback he’s ever coached.
Cherry rushed for more than 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, while Harmon emerged as one of the top two-way talents in the area. He picked off six passes last fall, earning a place on The Bee’s All-District large-school team alongside Cherry, Sarale, Semone and linebacker Jace Krick.
“This senior class, they’re unusual,” Merzon said. “Their academic GPAs are through the roof; they’re all sitting at 3.5 to 4.0. They’re not normal, but this group is unique because they’re so violent on the field and great in the classroom.”
Players to Watch
1. Gino Campiotti, quarterback, Manteca: A dangerous runner with an explosive arm, the 6-foot-3 Campiotti, who can dunk a basketball, is a rare talent. Campiotti reset numerous passing records at Manteca in 2016. He passed for 2,101 yards and 24 touchdowns against just five interceptions as the Buffaloes won a Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV crown. Sacramento State, Nevada, Fresno State, Utah State, Hawaii, UC Davis, Columbia and Harvard have expressed interest.
2. Justin Kakala, defensive line, Manteca: The 6-foot-4, 270-pound senior has built a recruiting profile to match his older sister, McDonald’s All-American and Louisville freshman Loretta Kakala. The younger Kakala has verbally committed to Cal, but continues to collect offers. He had 11 sacks last fall.
3. Dauson Booker, running back, Central Catholic: Stuck behind VOL MVP Jared Rice and four-year varsity star Montell Bland, Booker provided glimpses of his potential out of the backfield. He rushed for 226 yards and four touchdowns, including a season-high 113 yards and two scores in a playoff win over Downey.
4. Jacob Peterson, athlete, Sierra: One of the area’s top returning wide receivers, Peterson becomes more of an all-purpose weapon in new coach Chris Johnson’s hybrid Wing-T offense. The all-VOL selection could line up at receiver, halfback and quarterback. “He’s going to be in a position with the ball in his hands more often,” Johnson said.
5. D’Angelo Bellamy, running back, Central Catholic: A promising junior, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Bellamy gives coach Roger Canepa depth at the tailback position. Bellamy led the junior varsity team in carries last fall with 80, finishing with 619 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged nearly 8 yards per carry.
– James Burns
2016 Final Standings
School (league, overall records)
Oakdale (6-1, 14-2)
Manteca (6-1, 12-2)
Central Catholic (6-1, 8-4)
Sierra (4-6, 6-5)
East Union (3-4, 6-5)
Lathrop (3-4, 4-6)
Weston Ranch (1-6, 4-6)
Kimball (0-7, 1-9)