High School Football

Football teams from one-horse towns converge at Corral for NorCal bowl

Oakdale quarterback Mark Dickson dives into the end zone for a touchdownduring a Division III playoff game between Oakdale High School and Vista del Lago High School at Oakdale High School in Oakdale on Nov. 18, 2016.
Oakdale quarterback Mark Dickson dives into the end zone for a touchdownduring a Division III playoff game between Oakdale High School and Vista del Lago High School at Oakdale High School in Oakdale on Nov. 18, 2016. jwestberg@modbee.com

The Oakdale and Sutter high school football teams share more than just a date in Saturday’s CIF Northern California Division III-A regional bowl.

Upon closer examination, the Mustangs and Huskies are species of the same sort, at least in football terms.

On the facade, they are Wing-T programs steeped in a winning tradition. But how have they sustained success running a system popularized by their grandfathers?

While cities and towns across the state combat growth with new schools, Sutter and Oakdale live in a vacuum. By design, they are one-horse towns.

“It’s the support,” Sutter middle linebacker Logan Hungrige said. “The support you get from the community is just tremendous.”

With only one high school, the talent pool remains rich year in and year out and the main benefactors are the coaches: Oakdale’s Trent Merzon and Sutter’s Ryan Reynolds.

To that end, their appointment in Saturday’s regional bowl at The Corral was written long ago. Today’s athletes have been building toward this moment for years, from as early as second grade.

Oakdale has won 11 of the last 14 Valley Oak League championships and annexed its fifth Sac-Joaquin Section title with a 51-14 victory over Christian Brothers in the Division III final.

Sutter has won three straight Northern Section titles, routing Lassen 42-7 in the latest Division III final. Entering the final, the Huskies shut out seven consecutive opponents.

Their reward: a regional bowl showdown with another VOL program. Last season, Sutter took Sierra, the eventual Division IV-A state champion, to the wire in a 17-13 loss.

“We’re a school of 700 students,” Hungrige said. “It’s a compliment to our team that we keep getting these larger schools.”

Oakdale (12-2) may be larger, but not altogether different. Sutter, like Oakdale, is a tightly knit, rural community. It’s north of Sacramento with a population of about 3,000.

“We’re a tiny farming community outside of Yuba City,” Reynolds said. “You can’t even find us on the map.”

Not true.

The football world knows how to find Sutter (13-0). The Huskies have become a fixture in the CIF regional bowl landscape, advancing to a bowl for the third time in five years.

Sutter and Oakdale owe much of their long-term success to their small-town roots. In each town, their high school program is stocked by one youth program. The Junior Huskies, like the Oakdale Stampede, run the same plays, speak the same language and expect the same level of dominance.

“There is a clear-cut advantage for our kids. They grow up running our system,” said Reynolds, whose son Tyler is the starting quarterback. “Our youth program runs our offense and defense, from the Mighty Mites all the way up. They get schooled up pretty good and have a good idea of the system when they get to high school. That bodes well for us.”

Oakdale, too. The Mustangs’ junior and senior classes were dominating Valley Oak League foes long before they got to high school.

In 2013, the Stampede snapped the Manteca Junior Buffaloes’ six-game winning streak with a 36-14 victory, advancing to the Super Bowl. That Junior Buffalo team featured quarterback Gino Campiotti, linebacker Ferrin Manuleleua and lineman Kyle Reis, stalwarts on the Buffaloes’ varsity team that will travel to Menlo-Atherton on Friday for the Division III-AA regional bowl.

Hungrige, a hulking middle linebacker and an All-Northern Section performer, began playing for the Junior Huskies in second grade. Even then, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Division I recruit showed signs of dominance. He was moved up in age group but never lost sight of the success taking shape at the levels below.

Today, Sutter has meshed Hungrige’s ability – he has offers from Army, Navy and Air Force – with the depth and balance of the junior class.

“We’ve seen this coming for a while,” coach Reynolds said. “Our kids come up through the youth program, so we have a good bead on the groups that come through here. We knew this group had an opportunity to do something special.”

Added Hungrige: “It’s incredible coming up through a program like this. You can’t match it anywhere else. In my opinion, we have the best program. To grow up in a system like this, I don’t think you can imitate this experience anywhere else.”

Not true.

Sutter visits another Saturday.

James Burns: 209-578-2150, @jburns1980

At a glance

A look at the CIF State regional bowl pairings involving the Stanislaus District’s three remaining teams, with record and MaxPreps state ranking in parentheses:

Division III-AA

North: Manteca (12-1, No. 85) at Menlo-Atherton (11-2, No. 61), Friday

South: Mater Dei Catholic-Chula Vista (12-1, No. 33) at Paraclete-Lancaster (10-4, No. 66), Friday

Division III-A

North: Sutter (13-0, No. 73) at Oakdale (12-2, No. 55), Saturday

South: Bishop’s-La Jolla (13-0, No. 49) at Valley Christian-Cerritos (13-2, No. 94), Saturday

Division VI-AA

North: Mendota (13-0, No. 234) at Amador (13-1, No. 210), Friday

South: Rancho Christian-Temecula ( 12-2, No. 266) at Franklin-Los Angeles (13-1, No. 383), Friday

Note: All games kick off at 7:30 p.m.