Oakdale High football coach Trent Merzon shared a trade secret following Friday's 63-27 victory over Patterson in the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs.
"It's hard to win this late," Merzon said.
That may be true, but the Mustangs, the reigning D-III section and CIF State Bowl champions, are making it look easy.
Oakdale has defeated its three playoff opponents by a combined score of 160-55, and will appear in D-III's final game for the seventh time in the last eight years.
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The Mustangs (12-1) draw a familiar opponent, one just as accustomed to winning in November: Valley Oak League rival Manteca (11-2). Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Lincoln High's Spanos Stadium.
The two have been traveling similar arcs for the last 94 years. Oakdale has won five section titles and 13 of the last 16 VOL crowns, establishing itself as the premier public-school program in the Stanislaus District.
The Buffaloes have won five section championships, including the D-IV banner last fall.
They've met once this season, a 36-15 decision in favor of the Mustangs who now own a 52-41-4 advantage in the series.
A rematch has been brewing ever since.
"It didn't turn out the way we wanted," Manteca quarterback Gino Campiotti said, "but I think that somewhere down the road we'll see them again."
Added Merzon: "We talked about it when they came here. We thought there would be a good chance if they stayed in Division III. We're a tough out and they're a tough out, so there was a good chance we'd see each other.
"We know those guys really well and they know us really well."
So this goes without saying: the Mustangs' souped-up Wing-T is firing on all cylinders. Behind a physical offensive line, Oakdale rushed for a season-high 648 yards against the Tigers, the Western Athletic Conference champion.
"Offensively, I thought we were special," Merzon said, "and we finished drives when we had to."
Cameron Cherry became the first player in the Stanislaus District this season to crest 2,000 rushing yards. Cherry rushed for 225 yards and two touchdowns, bringing his season totals to 2,123 yards and 27 TDs.
On any other night, Cherry's milestone would have been the talk of the town.
However, he took a backseat to his fullback.
Josh Jacobson enjoyed a record-setting evening with 359 yards on just 29 carries. Jacobson scored on runs of 73, 8, 35, 27 and 79 yards, smashing the single-game rushing mark set by Will Semone (now a freshman at Cal Poly) last fall.
Semone rushed for 337 yards against Christian Brothers in the D-III final.
"That was special," Merzon said of Jacobson's performance.
His admiration for the senior stretches beyond Friday nights in the fall. Jacobson's grandfather, Jimmy Gilbert, was Merzon's coach at Oakdale.
Merzon said Jacobson, as quick a fullback as the Mustangs have ever deployed, was destined to take his turn in the bright lights of The Corral.
"He's a great kid. When people try to talk about what is an OKG (Oakdale kind of guy). He is an OKG," Merzon said. "It's in his blood. His grandfather was my high school football coach here, Jimmy Gilbert. So it's in his DNA. He is exactly what we want our kids to be. He is as tough as they come. I'm happy for him."
Cherry and Jacobson make up only two-thirds of the Mustangs' versatile ground attack.
The last piece may return to the offensive side of the ball this Friday. Bronson Harmon, one of the team's few two-way players, has been limited because of an ankle injury.
Harmon did not play offense in last week's win over Patterson. He did start at safety, where he hobbled off the field once favoring his ankle.
Zac Campbell filled in for Harmon, igniting the Mustangs in the first half with his physical running style. Campbell had 64 yards on five carries, including his first touchdown of the season. He scored on an 8-yard sweep in the fourth quarter.
"We miss Bronson. He's getting close to returning," Merzon said. "You'll probably see him next week, offensively. It takes an army, man; it takes a bunch of bodies. We have to survive and advance."
Manteca has been just as explosive. Quarterback Gino Campiotti has rushed for 10 touchdowns in the last two weeks, and opened the playoffs with five TD passes against Rio Americano.
The Buffaloes have outscored their playoff opponents 167-91, but were taken to the wire by Christian Brothers in last week's 43-38 win.
For the second time in three seasons, the D-III final is an all-VOL affair. In 2015, Central Catholic outlasted Oakdale. Jacobson welcomes the chance to reverse the Mustangs' fortunes.
"Let's grind," he says. "We're ready."