High School Sports

At 6-4, 260 pounds, Bee’s No. 3 returning football player can’t hide from spotlight

Oakdale High School's Nico Sarale, No. 3 on The Bee’s list of top-50 returning football players, poses for a portrait at the Merced Sun-Star office in Merced, Calif., on Thursday, July 27, 2017.
Oakdale High School's Nico Sarale, No. 3 on The Bee’s list of top-50 returning football players, poses for a portrait at the Merced Sun-Star office in Merced, Calif., on Thursday, July 27, 2017. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Nico Sarale’s ability to push people around the football field has put him in a difficult light.

The spotlight.

The highly-touted Oakdale High offensive lineman doesn’t crave attention, which is one reason why he’s drawn to the trenches.

Linemen are the unsung heroes of a football team. While the media and fans tend to focus most of the praise on the skill players, the big boys up front go largely unnoticed.

“A lot of people don’t like it because you’re not getting your name called all the time,” Sarale said. “That’s never really affected me. I could care less what people think, or if people know who I am, or if my name is out there.

“I like playing football. I like to contribute the way I can for my team and take care of my guys running the ball and my quarterback.”

No one in the Stanislaus District does it better than Sarale, a former wrestler who is built like a cement pillar and surges like a Mack truck. Sarale has added 45 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame since the start of his junior season, and now tips the scales at 260 pounds. He chose not wrestle last winter to prepare his body for the rigors of his final season of high school football.

Sarale is No. 3 on The Bee’s list of top returning football players, and he’s the highest-rated offensive lineman for good reason. Sarale is a foundational piece; the kind of player coaches can build a championship program around.

The season-opener at ancient rival Sonora on Aug. 25 marks his third season as a varsity starter.

“Football is something I love,” he said.

Sarale helped guide the Mustangs to a historic finish last fall.

Oakdale won 14 of its final 15 games, including seven straight to annex the program’s first CIF State Bowl victory. Behind a record-setting rush attack and a stingy defense, the Mustangs whipped Bishop’s School of La Jolla in the Division III-A State Bowl, 47-0.

Running back Will Semone (now a walk-on at Cal Poly) rushed for 2,851 yards, the most in Stanislaus District history, despite missing time early in the season with an ankle injury. Cameron Cherry, No. 6 on The Bee’s list of top returning players, also topped 1,500 yards.

“Anytime you see a running back have great success, it always says something about the offensive line,” Sarale said. “People that truly know football understand that.”

True to form, those accomplishments put Sarale, an all-Valley Oak League and MaxPreps All-Sac-Joaquin Section first-team selection, on the college radar.

His recruitment took off like a rocket, producing nine Division I scholarship offers, the most in school history. The Air Force Academy, Fresno State and Sacramento State are among the universities that have courted Sarale, according to 247Sports.com.

“I didn’t think I would get all-league or anything like that,” Sarale said. “The past couple of months have been mind-blowing. I couldn’t be more thankful.

“Without a doubt, if what happened last season didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. If my teammates didn’t do what they did, I wouldn’t be there. I’m nowhere by myself … not without my teammates and coaches.”

Sarale has been molded by offensive line coach Zack Quaccia, a star on the program’s first Sac-Joaquin Section championship team in 1996. Quaccia played at Stanford, and his time on The Farm has translated to The Corral. Over the last three seasons, Oakdale’s offensive lines have produced seven 1,000-yard rushers.

“We’re very blessed, to say the least, to have a guy like that as our coach,” Sarale said of Quaccia. “There’s never been a point in anyone’s football career where they’ve been perfect. If there were purely polished players, there would be no coaches in the NFL.

“Everyone has room to grow and get better. I miss up every day and every day he helps me.”

Sarale remains hungry, and that’s the message he delivers in the locker room. Oakdale returns a wealth of talent and will have a chance to defend its VOL, Sac-Joaquin Section Division III and state bowl titles.

“You’re going to have a target on your back. Everyone is coming after you,” Sarale said. “We have a lot of work to do if we want to achieve (state) again. Our coaching staff and the leaders we have, we remind each other that we shouldn’t be complacent. What happened last year happened last year. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

James Burns: 209-578-2150, @jburns1980

Counting Down the Top-50

A look at some of the top returning talent in the Stanislaus District:

50. Andrew Gibson, running back, Ceres. 49. Dallin Tilby, kicker, Turlock. 48. Tymon Bolden, running back, Orestimba. 47. Clifford Johnson, lineman, Merced. 46. Michael Vivo, quarterback, Waterford. 45. Ryan Henriques, safety, Modesto. 44. Jaysen Reindel, lineman, East Union. 43. Estevan Barragan, defensive back, Central Valley. 42. Kyle Rachels, safety, Manteca. 41. Chris Styles, running back, Modesto. 40. Lance Bickle, tight end, Pitman. 39. Michael Winters, running back/defensive back, Ripon. 38. Chris Butterfield, wide receiver, Enochs. 37. Mason Dambacher, linebacker, Sonora. 36. Carter Williams, defensive back, Manteca. 35. Octavio Perez, linebacker, Orestimba. 34. Coleby Garrett, linebacker, Central Catholic. 33. Jack Camara, linebacker, Sonora. 32. Tyler Vargas, athlete, Orestimba. 31. Davion Gates, running back, Modesto Christian. 30. Bobby Avina, quarterback, Gregori. 29. Paul Puaauli, linebacker, Modesto Christian. 28. Zac Campbell, linebacker, Oakdale. 27. Brandon Gray, wide receiver/defensive end, Beyer. 26. Kyle Reis, offensive lineman, Manteca. 25. Jacob Peterson, athlete, Sierra. 24. Bryce Peterson, quarterback, Downey. 23. Oliver Perez, running back, Gustine. 22. Evan Bearden, wide receiver/defensive end, Sonora. 21. Brenden Tallent, offensive lineman, Pitman. 20. Dhameer Warren, quarterback, Merced. 19. Jace Krick, linebacker, Oakdale. 18. Bronson Harmon, safety/wingback, Oakdale. 17. Ferrin Manueleua, linebacker, Manteca. 16. Dustin Grein, wide receiver/defensive back, Turlock. 15. Chris Mendoza, offensive lineman, Central Catholic. 14. David Serrano, defensive lineman, Central Valley. 13. Matt Kjeldgaard, defensive lineman, Oakdale. 12. Otutoa Afu, offensive lineman, Sonora. 11. Dauson Booker, running back, Central Catholic. 10. Zaire Eugene, running back, Modesto. 9. Gabe Sanchez, tight end, Gregori. 8. Justin Kakala, defensive lineman, Manteca. 7. Lavon Wallace, defensive back, Buhach Colony. 6. Cameron Cherry, running back, Oakdale. 5. Brandon Williamson, lineman, Central Catholic. 4. Gino Campiotti, quarterback, Manteca. 3. Nico Sarale, offensive lineman, Oakdale.

Next: No. 2 will be revealed online Wednesday and in print Thursday.