Oakdale High football coach Trent Merzon felt like he’d watched this horror flick before.
Playing for a Valley Oak League championship, against an undefeated Central Catholic team, at David Patton Field, the Mustangs fell behind early and, despite a furious comeback, fell just short.
That’s the way the game played out in 2015 and Merzon thought he was watching a sequel for about three quarters Friday night.
But a pair of key interceptions by Bronson Harmon and a 44-yard touchdown run by Cameron Cherry with 21 seconds to play helped the Mustangs to a 27-21 come-from-behind victory and a 13th VOL title in the last 16 seasons.
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“The last time we were here it was the same song, man,” said Merzon, whose team will almost assuredly be the No. 1 seed in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs when the brackets are announced Saturday at around 4 p.m. “They jump on us big and we came back. Then they jump on us again and we came back … So tonight, when they jumped on us it was like, ‘Gosh darn it, I think I’ve seen this story before.’ We just couldn’t get anything going early and it took us a while to kind of wear them down a little bit.”
With the scored tied 21-21, Marc Dickson hit Hunter Falconi for what appeared to be a game-winning 39-yard touchdown pass with just under a minute to play. However, the Mustangs were flagged for holding and the ball was backed up to the 50. After Cherry gained 6 to the Raiders’ 44, his number was called again – on fourth-and-7. This time he broke free on and raced up the visitor’s sideline for the game-winner.
“Honestly, I didn’t know it was fourth down,” said Cherry, whose 44-yard TD in the third quarter cut Central Catholic’s lead to 21-14 with 5:11 showing on the clock. “We just had Buck Left, that’s one of our main calls, and just trusted the process of our blocking and our guards and it happened.”
Oakdale’s game-winning drive was set up by Harmon’s second pick of the night.
Central Catholic had the ball second-and-6 on the Mustangs’ 30 when backup quarterback Theo Azevedo was sacked for a loss of 13. The Raiders got 8 yards back when Azevedo hit Dauson Booker on a screen pass, making it fourth-and-11 from Oakdale’s 35. Instead of punting and trying to pin the Mustangs deep in their own territory, Central went for it and Azevedo’s pass over the middle was picked by Harmon at the 18.
Harmon’s first pick of the night was even deeper in Oakdale territory – at the Mustangs’ 5. It was the first attempt of the game for Azevedo, who came in for starter Kyle Jackson one play earlier. Oakdale couldn’t turn the pick into points, but it did prevent from Central Catholic from adding to its advantage just before halftime.
Jackson suffered a scary injury with 2:05 to play in the first half. Flushed from the pocket, the sophomore bolted for daylight and was tackled awkwardly, with his left leg grotesquely folded under his body. He walked off the field on his own power, but he was done for the game and, perhaps, longer.
Oakdale rushed for a respectable 138 yards on 22 carries in the first half, but more than 70 percent of that output (99 yards) came on four big gainers. The other 18 carries in the first half produced just 39 yards.
In other words, the Raiders were mostly stuffing the Mustangs early on.
“We couldn’t get loose,” said Merzon. “They did stuff-technique … and it bothered us.”
Harmon’s 53-yard run early in the second quarter set up Josh Jacobson’s 1-yard touchdown run as the Mustangs halved Central Catholic’s lead, 14-7.
“They made plays and we didn’t make any in the third quarter,” said Central Catholic head coach Roger Canepa, whose team should grab one of the top four seeds in the D-II bracket. “We come out, hit ’em, and we’re up 21-7. I thought we held them but they go down and score. We’re driving the ball and we take a sack. Miss a field goal. Throw a pick (at the 5). And they score every time they were in scoring range, pretty much. That’s the game.”
Central Catholic opened the scoring on the third play of the game when Jackson hit a wide open Booker for a 50-yard TD pass 74 seconds into the contest.
With three seconds to play in the first quarter, fullback Coleby Garrett rumbled in from 25 yards out to make it 14-0.
After Jacobson’s TD made it 14-7, the Raiders pushed the lead back to 14 points when Azevedo hooked up with Kyle Jacklich from 19, making the score 21-7 with 7:53 remaining in the third quarter.
Oakdale countered with Cherry’s first 44-yard jaunt and then tied the score on Marc Dickson’s 1-yard sneak with 7:42 remaining in the contest. It was set up by Harmon’s 66-yard gainer to the 3.
Harmon finished with 137 yards rushing on just eight attempts while Cherry had a game-high 197 yards on 21 carries. Booker totaled 110 yards on 24 attempts, and also caught two passes for 58 yards and completed one for 43.
The Raiders (8-1, 6-1 VOL) entered as the third-ranked team in MaxPreps’ section rankings, while Oakdale (9-1, 7-0) was No. 8.
The Mustangs have been No. 1 in The Bee’s large-school power rankings all season, while Central Catholic has been No. 2 since the opening week of VOL action.