The Oakdale High School Mustangs and Christian Brothers Falcons of Sacramento take to heart one of life’s basic adages – it’s how you finish, not how you start.
Oakdale opened Aug. 26 with a humbling 27-13 loss at rival Sonora. Christian Brothers’ beginning was even more rocky with lopsided losses to Manteca and rival Jesuit.
But look at them now: Both are 11-2 and have advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final at 7 p.m. Friday at Lincoln High’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“It’s like the windshield or the rearview mirror. What’s going on in front of you is more important than what is behind you,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “Christian Brothers righted their ship, and so have we. The only thing that matters is how we play that night.”
The game, on the surface, features two bona fide stars: Oakdale running back Will Semone, the school record holder with 1,992 yards (8.4-yard average) and 20 touchdowns; and Christian Brothers quarterback Tyler Vander Waal, a Ball State commit who’s passed for 2,781 yards and 23 touchdowns.
11-2 The season record of both Oakdale and Christian Brothers
The 6-foot-4 Vander Waal, coupled with running back/cornerback Jamarri Jackson (17 touchdowns), engineers a spread offense that runs almost as effectively as it throws. The No. 3-seeded Falcons beat American Canyon 29-0 last week.
“They have a dynamic quarterback,” Merzon said in reference to Vander Waal. “We’ve seen some really good quarterbacks this season, but he might be the best yet.”
A closer look, however, reveals more than just overachieving athletes who have produced glossy stats. Both programs are led by veteran coaches in Merzon and Christian Brothers’ Dan Carmazzi.
Oakdale, which has claimed at least a share of 11 of the last 14 Valley Oak League championships, aims for its third Division III title since 2012. Christian Brothers, winner of 11 consecutive games and a finalist for the first time since 1986, has not won the big prize since ’83.
Meanwhile, top-seeded Oakdale answers with more fast-finishing evidence. Starting with a whimper and ending with a roar has been the Mustangs’ MO. Vista del Lago of Folsom and Merced, their last two opponents, scored touchdowns on their first three possessions. Oakdale overwhelmed Vista 63-35 two weeks ago and Merced 35-21 in the semifinals.
“We’re over-stimulated early,” Merzon said. “We’re starting 13 juniors on offense and defense. We relax, adjust to their speed and play our game.”
Christian Brothers righted their ship, and so have we. The only thing that matters is how we play that night.
Oakdale coach Trent Merzon
Major adjustments kicked in after the loss to Sonora. The Mustangs inserted junior Marc Dickson at quarterback, Bronson Harmon at safety and Cameron Cherry (1,287 yards, 10 touchdowns) at tailback and made several switches up front. Harmon intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble and threw an option pass for the clinching touchdown last week.
Semone, who’s totaled 825 yards and 10 touchdowns during the playoffs, can thank tackles Brandon Vierra and Nico Sarale, guards Jacob Tietjen and Conner Reed and center Jorge Barajas.
Defensively, linemen Michael Everett, Levi Ichord (seven tackles vs. Merced), Matt Kjeldgaard, Cullen Bearden and Jacob Peterson pursue from sideline to sideline.
“It wasn’t just one major move. I think we just got better,” Merzon said. “It took some time for our younger guys to settle in.”