High School Football

Quaccia built like Paul Bunyan, but impact at Oakdale no tall tale

The phone rings, and the voice on the other end – a reporter from the Northern Section – wants to know if it’s another tall tale from a faraway corner of the high school football universe.

Has the Oakdale High School football team really produced seven 1,000-yard rushers over the last three years, including three in one season?

The answer hits like a forward-charge from Will Semone, the Mustangs’ 2,000-yard back: “Yes.”

The next question is obvious: How?

Well, that answer lies with Zack Quaccia, the Mustangs’ offensive-line coach with an NFL body and Stanford-educated mind, and his lips are sealed.

Quaccia grants few interviews. Like the linemen he trains, Quaccia would rather his actions carry the conversation, not his words.

“Hey, Q, you going to do an interview today?” coach Trent Merzon yelled across the practice field on Tuesday, ribbing the mountain of a man.

With his hands in his pockets and ball cap pulled down on his brow, Quaccia, a star on Oakdale’s first Sac-Joaquin Section championship team in 1996, simply shook his head and continued toward the huddle of coaches at midfield.

“He hates talking, but he’s a bad-ass,” Merzon said. “Coach Quaccia does an amazing job. He’s already been where these guys want to go. He was a great player here.”

And he’s returned an even better coach.

With an offense powered by three all-conference linemen, Oakdale (12-2) charges into Saturday’s CIF Northern California Division III-A bowl against Sutter (13-0).

The terms are clear: The winner advances to a state bowl, while the loser enters the offseason. No two teams better understand those stakes.

Oakdale is playing in its third regional bowl in the last five years. The Mustangs advanced in 2012 and 2014, clinching a state berth in 2012 with a win over Clayton Valley Charter. The Mustangs lost to Serra in the Division II state bowl.

The Huskies, on the other hand, are 0-3 at the regional level, losing in 2012, 2014 and 2015, the latter to Manteca’s Sierra High, the eventual Division IV-A champ.

Both teams are traditional wing-T programs, eliminating the shock-and-awe factor in this intersectional showdown.

“It’s no secret what we’re going to go out there and do. We’re going to run our plays and do what we do,” said Jacob Tietjen, a senior lineman. “If a team can stop us, props to them. We’ll tip our hat and shake their hands at the end of the game.

“If they end up getting us, they get us, but then again, we’re here for a reason. We do what we do, and we do it well.”

Oakdale has enjoyed a record run the last three years.

In 2014, three players rushed for more than 1,000 yards, including fullback Frankie Trent, now a sophomore at Butte College. Trent shined brightest on literally the biggest stage in Northern California – Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers. He scored six touchdowns in a 42-21 victory over Valley Oak League rival Manteca in a Friday Night Lights showcase.

Last fall, fullback Brad Aquino set a program record with 1,874 yards and 37 touchdowns. Austin Burke, a converted soccer player, averaged nearly 12 yards per carry and topped 1,200 yards as Oakdale ran all the way to the Division III section final.

This season didn’t look nearly as promising at the start. The Mustangs were hit hard by graduation, losing a quarterback, all three running backs, a tight end and four offensive linemen.

Still, the system, crafted by Merzon and assistants like Quaccia, has spawned new stars.

“He and I are on the same page,” Merzon said.

Semone has shined in his only season in red and gold. He has reset the rushing record with 2,329 yards, fifth all-time in Stanislaus District history.

Also, wing Cameron Cherry has 1,422 yards and 10 TDs. He had 137 yards and a score in the section final victory over Christian Brothers.

The other wing, Bronson Harmon, probably won’t break 1,000 yards, but the two-way player makes the most of his limited carries. The junior has scored 10 times.

“When they get yards like that and they’re putting up those numbers, it says a lot about our O-line,” said junior lineman Nico Sarale.

The Mustangs’ success begins in the trenches, where Quaccia has developed three all- VOL first-team selections: tackles Brandon Vierra and Sarale, along with Tietjen at right guard. Jorge Barajas starts at center, while Conner Reed and Corey Hinojosa share snaps at left guard.

Sarale, who has generated interest from Cal Poly, was the only full-time starter a season ago. Vierra saw his playing time increase down the stretch in 2015 after Louis Marsella’s injury.

“It goes back to the coaching,” Tietjen said. “At the beginning of the season, they got us together and we bought into everything they told us. That’s where our success comes from.”

No one is more appreciative of the tutelage and the titles than Tietjen, who hadn’t won a football championship at any level until Oakdale stunned Central Catholic on the regular season’s final night to split the VOL three ways.

A section title only whet his appetite for more.

“Coach Quaccia won the first section championship for Oakdale,” Tietjen said. “Friday was our fifth one and he made a comment: ‘We’ve won section titles, and that’s great and all. We’ve won NorCal titles before, but there’s still one thing that hasn’t been done here – win a state title.’ We definitely have that in our sights and hopefully, we can get that done.”

Quaccia is a technician who draws on his unique pedigree. The biggest man on the field understands how far “the little things” can take a player.

A member of Oakdale’s first section title-winning team, Quaccia enjoyed a standout career at Stanford as a 6-foot-3, 309-pound center and guard, and started in the 2002 Rose Bowl. He was drafted in the seventh round later that year by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He joined the Oakdale coaching staff in 2007.

“He’s got an unrelenting attitude about doing what’s right,” Merzon said. “His character is tremendous, and like I said, he’s unwavering with his beliefs. He’s perfect for our O-linemen. I think it takes a special coach to win every year, especially at a public high school where you don’t get to pick and choose. He has to coach what’s there. You know, size will change, but style of play won’t.

“It all blends perfectly with what we like to do on offense. We want to attack people and play fast. Our linemen have to be super intelligent and super unselfish. That’s exactly what coach Q is, so he’s perfect for that. Not everybody can play O-line at Oakdale. Our linemen are type-B guys. They’re usually OK with not getting their name called, OK not being announced, OK not scoring touchdowns. They’re team guys.”

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. 68), Friday

Division III-A

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

South: The Bishop’s-La Jolla (13-0, No. 49) at Valley Christian-Cerritos (12-2, No. 93), Saturday

Division VI-AA

North: Mendota (13-0, No. 233) 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.