The Oakdale High School football team hasn’t taken a perfect path to Friday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final.
There have been missteps and mistakes along the way. Even as the No. 1 seed, the Mustangs have had to fight from behind in playoff wins over Vista del Lago and Merced.
“We haven’t followed script, that’s for sure,” said Oakdale coach Trent Merzon, who, in his 17th season, has been uniquely tested by a young but talented roster that features 13 junior starters. “(Coming from behind) hasn’t been a part of the game plan, but we’ve done that all year long. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re young and inexperienced.”
Yet, here they are in a Sac-Joaquin Section final – yet again – all grown up.
The Mustangs will battle third-seeded Christian Brothers (11-2) for the D-III title at Lincoln High’s Spanos Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
The Capital Athletic League champions have won 11 straight games. The Falcons are headlined by quarterback Tyler Vander Waal. The Ball State-commit has thrown 2,781 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Christian Brothers advanced to its first section final in 30 years with a stunning 29-0 victory over No. 2 American Canyon.
Vander Wall rushed for three touchdowns and the defense, anchored by linebacker Aarmon Euwing (91 tackles, 22 for a loss) and defensive back Tyler Green (12 interceptions), forced five turnovers.
“They’re hot, but most teams are in a section for a reason,” Merzon said. “Christian Brothers moves the ball really well and they’re fast and athletic on defense. We need to do us. We need to be able to move the ball and tackle. Once the game starts, it’s just a game.”
Few know this game as well as the Mustangs, who have played for a section title 14 times, tied for third-most in section history behind Valley Oak League rival Central Catholic (21) and Del Oro (16).
The Mustangs have raised a blue banner four times, with most of that success coming in the last nine years. Oakdale has appeared in six of the last seven D-III finals with three titles: 2007, 2012 and 2014.
“We’ve had some very good teams come through here. Our kids know what it entails to be considered great in this program,” Merzon said. “We’re the VOL champion and beating Central Catholic was awesome. Playing during Thanksgiving was special. Getting to this game is special, but ...”
Up until a few weeks ago, Merzon had been careful not to look ahead or create undue pressure in his locker room. He let his junior-laden team determine its own ceiling, meeting each big victory with a “this-may-be-as-good-as-it-gets” speech.
The Mustangs are in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final for the third consecutive season and sixth time in last seven:
2016 – vs. Christian Brothers
2015 – lost to Central Catholic 21-14
2014 – beat Inderkum 27-23
2012 – beat Vista del Lago 22-9
2011 – lost to Del Oro 21-7
2010 – lost to Del Oro 21-0
Today, the Mustangs are allowed to dream and look beyond the D-III final. With a victory on Friday, Oakdale would play in a CIF State regional bowl for the third time in six seasons, joining an exclusive group.
The Mustangs were defeated by Clayton Valley Charter in the Division II regional bowl in 2014. Two years earlier, Oakdale beat Clayton Valley to reach a state bowl.
“Getting to this game is special, but now they have a true opportunity to differentiate themselves from the teams of the past,” Merzon said, finishing his thought. “This one is is big. This one is for the ring.”
Merzon’s current roster might be loaded with juniors, but they’ve been fast-tracked for the game by a demanding schedule with “big environments” at every stop.
Oakdale opened the season at Sonora, where the two competed in the 100th game of their rivalry. The Mustangs also welcomed an Oregon state semifinalist in Crater High, and stunned reigning CIF State finalist Campolindo in Moraga.
Then came the VOL, which was about as comfortable as a street brawl.
The Mustangs survived a scare from Sierra; lost a nail-biter at Manteca, the Division IV champion; and throttled Central Catholic in their regular-season finale to clinch a share of their 11th title in 14 seasons and the No. 1 overall playoff seed.
Oakdale has won 11 of its last 12 games, leaning on a vicious running attack and a bend-but-don’t-break defense. Senior running back Will Semone has rushed for 825 yards in three playoff games, and with three more yards will become the 18th member of the Stanislaus District’s 2,000-yard club.
Getting to this game is special, but now they have a true opportunity to differentiate themselves from the teams of the past. This one is is big. This one is for the ring.
Trent Merzon, Oakdale football coach
Seniors Michael Everett and Cullen Bearden have stabilized a defense that also features playmaking juniors Levi Ichord and Bronson Harmon, who has a team-high six interceptions.
“We’ve been growing all year. Going up to Sonora, there was a huge atmosphere for the 100th year and we fell flat. The trip to Campolindo was huge for us. We went up against a marquee opponent with a marquee quarterback,” Merzon said. “Our preseason got us ready for league, and the way our league is it’s haymaker after haymaker. It’s ‘If you don’t come to play, you’re going to lose.’ Each week has prepared us for this.”
At a glance
What: Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship
Who: No. 1 Oakdale (11-2) vs. No. 3 Christian Brothers (11-2)
Where: Lincoln High’s Spanos Stadium (Stockton)
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Tickets: Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and students; children under 5 are free. Parking is $5 for cars and $10 for RVs/vehicles with trailers.
Live updates: Follow reporter James Burns at @jburns1980.