Downey coach Jeremy Plaa has come to know this about Oakdale High School football players: They’re quiet and attentive, yet powerful and punishing.
It’s a rare combination, to be that humble and this hungry, and it has made the Mustangs quick studies as the Downey coaching staff scrambles to install its offense and defense ahead of Saturday’s Lions All-Star Football Game.
It can be complicated and overwhelming, but Plaa said the perennial Valley Oak League champions need only to be told once.
Plaa is in the throes of his second stint as a head coach for the South all-stars, who engage their rivals to the north on Saturday evening at 7 o’clock at Wayne Schneider Stadium in Tracy.
Plaa has collected the best talent from Modesto to Atwater. The initial selection process was governed by a per-school cap, but if he had his way, Plaa would have picked at least a half-dozen Mustangs.
As it is, the South will start the 42nd annual game with four, one strategically placed at every level on the field.
History suggests the South will be the underdog. The North has dominated the grudge match in recent years, winning eight of the last 11 to take a 24-15-2 advantage in the series.
The Oakdale contingent might not be saying much this week, on the field or off, but their influence has been felt.
“The first time I coached the game, it was almost the exact same thing. Oakdale kids are quiet and tough. There’s no other way to describe them,” said Plaa, who last coached the South in 2004 while he was at Gustine. “You can tell they listen and absorb everything, and when they put on the pads, they’re nails.”
The quartet is led by tough-to-tackle Frankie Trent, the Valley Oak League’s Most Valuable Player. The fullback chewed up the middle of fields from Oakdale to Reno – the Mustangs visited and beat McQueen 47-7.
Trent’s season was highlighted by a six-touchdown, 223-yard performance in a 42-21 rout of Manteca at Levi’s Stadium, the billion-dollar home of the 49ers.
“I was telling the other coaches it’s obvious what type of runner he is. Every time he puts his foot in the ground, he’s got this power and forward lean. Even if you tackle him, he’s going to drag you for 3 more yards,” Plaa said. “With our system, speed helps inside (the tackles), but he’s the type of kid who can make his own holes.”
Offensive lineman Jon Carmelich was an all-VOL first-team selection, and linebacker Christian Johnson and free safety Tyler Flores were named to the second team.
Carmelich helped pave the way for the Mustangs’ vaunted rush attack. Oakdale had three players top 1,000 yards, including Brock Whiting and Darus Nelson, and amassed 528 rushing yards in a 41-14 show of force against Rio Linda in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals.
All four have arrived at Cal State Stanislaus with their hard hats on, quietly soaking up the demands of a new coaching staff.
“They’re locked into everything you say,” Plaa said, “and they do what they’re asked to do.”
The humble and hard-working Mustangs let their practice jerseys speak for them. Trent wears a jersey that reads “selfless” across the chest. Johnson’s jersey is pressed with the word “passion,” while Flores wears “grit” in block lettering.
Plaa gave a nod to Trent Merzon, Oakdale’s longtime coach, for molding quintessential all-stars. Merzon has propped up his program on those very ideals – selflessness, passion and grit – and turned the Mustangs into a Northern California juggernaut.
Oakdale has reached a section final 12 times, winning four titles. The last was emblematic of the Mustangs’ iron will.
Oakdale fought for each of its laurels in the fall, rallying to earn a split of the VOL and section championships. In the D-III final, Oakdale erased a 20-point deficit against Inderkum (Sacramento) and won 27-23.
The Mustangs were rewarded with their second appearance in a CIF Northern California regional bowl in three seasons.
“Coach Merzon is always on top of it. Anytime his kids are doing an all-star game, the kids understand they represent him and the program,” Plaa said. “They understand the respect and honor that goes into that.
“When the kids leave there, they’re usually VOL champions and very respectful. That comes from their community, but a lot (of the credit) goes to Merzon and his staff.”
Lions All-Star Football Game rosters
Labron (LJ) Alofaituli (Sierra, Manteca) 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, LB
Kiante Bell (Edison, Stockton) 5-9, 160, DB
Nate Brown (Tracy) 6-4, 250, OT
Sean Buligon (Edison, Stockton) 6-0, 200, QB
Chris Cannady (Lincoln, Stockton) 5-10, 170, WR
Darrell Clemons (Manteca) 6-2, 260, OL
Rashad Copper (Kimball, Tracy) 5-11, 190, RB
Tylor Cornwell (Stagg, Stockton) 6-4, 330, OL
Julius Davila (Chavez, Stockton) 5-11, 175, QB
Grayson Dillon (Tokay, Lodi) 5-10, 180, QB
Demetrius Ferguson (St. Mary’s, Stockton) 6-4, 160, WR
Sergio Fernandez (Chavez, Stockton) 5-10, 155, DB
Conner Hamilton (Calaveras, San Andreas) 5-10, 180, DB/RB
Hunter Johnson (Sierra, Manteca) 6-4, 200, WR
Nate Jones (Tracy) 5-7, 185, RB
Bradley Kazmierack (Tokay, Lodi) 5-9, 180, LB
Serge (Billy) Kiriluk (Sonora) 5-10, 220, LB
Hawaii Leafa Teo (Lathrop) 5-7, 180, LB
Dustin Littlefield (Amador, Sutter Creek) 6-2, 225, LB
Steven Martinez (Manteca) 5-11, 290, NG
Trevon McCray (Sierra, Manteca) 6-0, 220, LB
Keilen Mocencio (Lincoln, Stockton) 6-0, 260, C
Javonte Norman (St. Mary’s, Stockton) 5-10, 160, DB
Craig Perkins (Bear Creek, Stockton) 6-1, 175, DB
Brandon Russell (Tracy) 5-10, 185, LB
Zerek Saldivar (Sonora) 6-3, 220, OG
Tristen Taylor (Stagg, Stockton) 6-6, 304, OL
Jacob Wall (Tokay, Lodi) 6-2, 240, C
Kahale Warring (Sonora) 6-6, 200, WR
JaQuan Williams (Edison, Stockton) 6-0, 215, LB
Head coach: John Ward (Chavez, Stockton)
Kama’Re Bailey (Mariposa) 6-0, 180, RB/DB
Alec Barcellos (Los Banos) 6-2, 190, DB
Dante Berggren (Waterford) 6-1, 160, WR/DB
Jon Carmelich (Oakdale) 5-11, 235, OL
A.J. Contreras (Central Catholic, Modesto) 6-2, 240, OL/DL
Guvbak Dhami (Central Valley) 6-3, 270, DL
Tyler Flores (Oakdale) 5-9, 165, DB
Jason Foglia (Pitman, Turlock) 5-11, 185, LB
Roy Gutierrez (Buhach Colony, Atwater) 5-10, 175, DB
Andy Jennings (Turlock) 6-2, 220, LB
Christian Johnson (Oakdale) 6-1, 215, LB
Damarrio Hammonds (Patterson) 5-11, 175, WR/DB
Wyatt Hjelm (Oakdale) 6-4, 245, OL
Josh Lowe (Downey, Modesto) 6-4, 280, OL/DL
Jacob Mabie (Turlock) 6-2, 190, WR/DB
Jakob Magana (Downey, Modesto) 5-7, 150, WR/DB
Robert Martinez (Turlock) 6-2, 260, OL
Ty Nelson (Downey, Modesto) 6-4, 280, OL/DL
Quian Newson (Buhach Colony, Atwater) 6-3, 220, WR/DB
Chas Parrott (Beyer, Modesto) 5-11, 185, LB/DB
Nate Phillips (Modesto) 5-9, 160, WR/DB
Hunter Powers (Patterson) 6-0, 195, DB
Bailey Rodriguez (Los Banos) 5-10, 240, DL
Josh Roy (Downey, Modesto) 6-4, 300, OL/DL
Ken Severe (Beyer, Modesto) 5-10, 260, OL/DL
Justin Stefani (Buhach Colony, Atwater) 5-10, 215, RB/DB
Devondre Stendardo (Hughson) 6-0, 190, WR/DB
Frankie Trent (Oakdale) 5-9, 205, RB/LB
Matt Vargas (Gregori, Modesto) 6-2, 210,WR/DL
Josh Vercelli (Pitman, Turlock) 5-10, 210, DL
P.J. Wilson (Downey, Modesto) 5-9, 160, QB
Head coach: Jeremy Plaa (Downey, Modesto)
If You Go
What: 42nd annual Lions All-Star Football Game
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Wayne Schneider Stadium, Tracy High School
Series: North leads 24-15-2