Two years ago, the Oakdale and Central Catholic football teams met in Week 10 with identical 9-0 records and a Valley Oak League title on the line.
It was one of the most anticipated league finals in the history of the Stanislaus District and it didn’t disappoint.
Central, behind Fresno State-bound Justin Rice, bolted to a big lead and had to hold off a furious charge by the Mustangs for a 42-37 victory at David Patton Field.
Most everybody left the stadium that night absolutely certain the teams would meet again for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship. They did, with the Raiders winning a 21-7 thriller on a neutral field in Stockton.
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The build-up to this year’s game isn’t quite as seismic. Only Central Catholic comes in sporting an unblemished record, while the Mustangs enter with an 8-1 mark. And, there’s no way the teams can meet again in the postseason. The Raiders are destined for the Division II playoffs, while Oakdale will end up in the D-III bracket.
But make no mistake: This is the biggest and most anticipated football game of the season.
Just don’t tell that to either coach.
“This game, I’ve learned a couple of things about it,” said Central Catholic head coach Roger Canepa, who guided the Raiders to four consecutive state championships from 2012-15. “There is another week after this. A few years ago (2014), we got beat by Oakdale and went on to win the state title. So, as big a game as it is, there’s another week after this one. It’s a big game, but not an end-of-the-world game. You can’t get too high or too low no matter what happens. That’s what I’ve learned after all these years.”
Oakdale coach Trent Merzon has led the Mustangs to 13 VOL championships in the past 16 years and the Sac-Joaquin Section championship game six of the last seven seasons.
“When you’ve been doing this as long as we have, you know that what’s a big deal right now is a big deal right now,” said Merzon, whose team has defeated Central in two of the of the last three regular-season meetings. “But as soon as it’s over, there’s another big thing coming For me, it’s all about perspective. We want our kids to keep their eye on prize, eat healthy, do well in the classroom and be productive citizens.
“We don’t spend much time reading or probing for information on what people talking about. I know out there it’s a big game. It’ll be a pretty big game for four days then people will be talking about something else.”
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. at Central Catholic’s David Patton Field.
Canepa admits to mishandling games of this magnitude early in his career.
“Looking back if I could do some things over?” pondered Canepa. “Working so hard to win one game, you get a couple of injuries, and then the next week get beat by a team you should’ve beat.”
Merzon is just thankful than these opportunities seem to surround his program.
“I think the biggest reason we have these games every year is because of how we live our lives every day,” said Merzon, now in his 18th season as head coach of Oakdale. “It’s a heck of a lot more to playing championship games. As a coach, I want our community to have something to root for and our players to play for.
“We want to put our best product on the field and want our kids to do what they do.”