Oakdale High School football coach Trent Merzon emerged from the locker room donning a white T-shirt pressed with five digits across the chest: 95361.
Nearly 435 miles from home, the Mustangs represented their ZIP code – that fertile soil that breeds cattle, crop and football championships – by pinning a 47-0 beatdown on Bishop’s School in the CIF Division III-A State Bowl on Saturday night.
Will Semone and the vaunted Wing-T offense continued their assault on opposing defenses and Oakdale returned an interception for a touchdown for the third straight game, securing the school’s first State Bowl trophy on a picturesque evening at Gene Edwards Stadium.
“This was our style of football game,” Merzon said, “and I honestly love coming on the road to do it. It makes it more special. We were here and we outdrew them, we out-banded them, we out-cheerleaded them, we out-everythinged them … and we came nine hours to do it.”
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With the Pacific Ocean peeking in on the action, Oakdale turned the million-dollar venue into a home game. Hundreds of red-and-gold fans filled the seats on both sides of the stadium. The Oakdale High marching band entertained the crowd at halftime, and the football team set a daunting pace.
The Mustangs scored on four consecutive drives to build a 27-0 halftime cushion. Josh Jacobson ignited another flurry in the second half, tipping a Jeffrey Jackson pass to himself and returning the interception 65 yards for a touchdown.
The game finished with a running clock, a luxury afforded by Semone, who broke the Stanislaus District season rushing record on a 3-yard run early in the fourth quarter. He punctuated that drive with a 6-yard touchdown to make it 41-0, relieving the timekeeper of their duties.
He added a 55-yard scoring burst, punctuating another big night for the Central Catholic transfer. Semone finished with 219 yards and six touchdowns on 28 carries, his sixth straight game with 200-plus yards.
With 2,851 yards, Semone’s place in history is set.
So, too, is Oakdale’s.
“It means anything is possible,” said Semone, who clutched the CIF trophy in one hand. “I wouldn’t be nothing without the guys up front. They bust their butts. This just feels amazing.”
The win completes a memorable season for the Mustangs (14-2), who didn’t begin 2016 with state title aspirations. With a roster ravaged by graduation and a junior class still figuring out roles, Oakdale simply wanted to compete.
The schedule didn’t show the Mustangs any mercy, either. On opening night, Oakdale was embarrassed by Sonora 27-13 in the centennial game of their longtime rivalry. That night, Merzon used two quarterbacks, and the defense, so dynamic and nasty throughout the postseason, couldn’t get the Wildcats off the field.
The loss, however, set the trajectory for the Mustangs, who would go on to win 14 of their next 15, carve out a split of the Valley Oak League championship and roll to the program’s fifth Sac-Joaquin Section banner.
“With how the season started, people never saw this coming. It’s really cool to be here and show people it’s football,” Oakdale lineman Matt Kjeldgaard said. “Sometimes, you lose football games, but it’s not how your season starts but how it ends.”
Added Merzon: “One game doesn’t dictate who you are. The OKGs (Oakdale Kind of Guys), you rise up when things are hard and the struggle makes you stronger. When you look at our season, you define what an OKG is.”
New heroes emerged each week, whether it was wingback Cameron Cherry, who carried Oakdale to a 28-25 victory over Sierra; or linebacker Jace Krick, who turned the Northern California regional bowl with a 78-yard interception return; or quarterback Marc Dickson, whose 15-yard touchdown run gutted Christian Brothers.
The one constant, however, was the wing-T, more a philosophy than a system.
Oakdale doesn’t pretend to be innovative or sneaky. The offense is the same today as it was five years ago as it was 15 years ago. That consistency has bred culture, and the culture screams: Stop us ... if you can.
For the last 15 weeks, no one has. Semone rushed for a District-record 2,851 yards despite missing nearly two games because of an ankle injury. A bulk of those yards have come in the postseason. Semone had 1,684 yards in six games, breaking the district postseason record hold by former Central Catholic teammate Justin Rice (1,331) last fall.
Not keen on individual statistics, Merzon took note of Semone’s place on the district rushing chart a few weeks back. By season’s end, the 17th-year coach wanted the record just as much as Semone and his teammates.
When Semone broke loose for his final touchdown, Merzon tracked him step for step, pumping his fist. That run ensured the record belonged to Semone and school.
“Somebody told me a couple of weeks ago when we knew it would be close. They said do whatever you can to get that record because when he’s up there, Oakdale’s up there,” Merzon said. “Anytime somebody looks at who’s the leading rusher in the area, they’re going to see it’s an Oakdale kid. ... It couldn’t have happened to be a better kid.”
Semone runs with anger, seeking contact with every carry. He wasn’t looked upon as a first-string running back at Central Catholic and missed his junior season because of a shoulder injury. He packed all of that frustration into a breakout senior season.
“When someone tells you ‘No,’ I’m the type of guys that will tell you, ‘I can do it,’ ” he said. “I came from a place that said, ‘Maybe you can carry the ball on third down.’ I wanted to carry the ball on every down, so I came into the season with a chip on my shoulder and something to prove.”
He wasn’t the only one. Cherry and fellow junior Bronson Harmon filled vacancies at the wingback positions and combined for 20 touchdowns. Cherry finished his breakout season with 100 yards against the tiring Knights defense, 87 in the first half.
Offensive line coach Zack Quaccia, a man of action and few words, had the luxury of only one full-time returning starter: junior Nico Sarale. In short order, Quaccia developed three into all-VOL first-team selections: Sarale, Jacob Tietjen and Brandon Vierra.
Even then, Oakdale was cast as the underdog in the Division III-A State Bowl.
Bishop’s was awarded the home game, forcing the Mustangs to make the 435-mile trip to La Jolla, a quiet coastal community north of San Diego. The Knights were ranked ahead of Oakdale in MaxPreps’ computer-generated state rankings – No. 40 versus 52 – and climbed to No. 1 in Cal-Hi Sports’ Division IV state poll after Sutter’s loss to Oakdale in the NorCal bowl.
Blessed with a prolific offense and a history of section and state success under eighth-year coach Joel Allen, Bishop’s was worthy of the ranking. The Knights have won two of the last three San Diego Section titles, elevating the program from a small-school level to a medium-school power. In 2010, Bishop’s captured the Division IV State Bowl with a runaway victory over Brookside Christian.
They’re built for this stage.
So, too, is Oakdale, which made its second appearance in a State Bowl in the last five years.
The Mustangs traveled well to La Jolla, as hundreds made the trek by truck and car, RV and plane. Anticipation for one of the biggest games in school history was off the charts.
All over town, Oakdale red and gold lined the streets, from the family dining outside Carino’s pizza parlor to the lifted truck bearing the “Oakdale Baseball” sticker near the shops and restaurants on Prospect Lane.
Six hours before kickoff, Tim and Dustin Pace, a father-and-son duo, began tailgating along Fay Avenue. As father unloaded the RV, son unfolded chairs and set up camp around a small charcoal grill. By 3 o’clock, their party had swelled. By 10, the takeover was complete.
“I’ve been coaching a long time now, and it’s hard to win your last game,” Merzon said. “I’m numb a little bit. I said this when the journey started, we don’t shoot for this. We shoot for league titles. When we get into the playoffs, we know how hard it is to win just one game. It’s hard to win each week. With our struggles early, it forced us to keep our head down. We honestly never looked past the next week.”
“I’m so excited there’s no next week,” he said, pulling his daughter close. “I’m excited to be off next week.”
Stanislaus District’s 2,000-Yard Club
1. Will Semone, Oakdale (2016) 2,851*
2. Andrew Brown, Ripon Christian (2013) 2,781
3. Justin Rice, Central Catholic (2015) 2,698
4. Ja’Quan Gardner, Central Valley (2013) 2,467
5. Matt Ringer, Central Catholic (2013) 2,348
6. Jose Zambrano, Linden (2004) 2,281
7. Nathan Chunn, Escalon (2012) 2,240
8. Brandon LaBry, Gustine (2015) 2,199
9. Homer Garza, Hughson (2012) 2,195
10. Justin Rice, Central Catholic (2014) 2,146
11. Garrett Turner, Merced (2006) 2,115
12. Ray Lomas IV, Central Catholic (2,012) 2,084
13. Austin Martins, Orestimba (2015) 2,081
14. Nicko Tatum, Davis (1995) 2,063
15. Deven Cannon, Johansen (2008) 2,054
16. Mark Paule, Sierra (2014) 2,024
17. Ryan Martinez, Le Grand (2013) 2,010
18. James Sams, Los Banos (2012) 2,006
* Rushed for Stanislaus District-record 1,684 yards in the postseason.
CIF Division III-A State Bowl
OAKDALE 47, BISHOP’S 0
At La Jolla High School
Oakdale 6 21 7 13 – 47
Bishop’s 0 0 0 0 – 0
Oak – Will Semone 8 run (kick failed)
Oak – Semone 18 run (Collin Harrity kick)
Oak – Semone 3 run (Harrity kick)
Oak – Semone 22 run (Harrity kick)
Oak – Josh Jacobson 65 interception return (Harrity kick)
Oak – Semone 6 run (Harrity kick)
Oak – Semone 55 run (kick failed)
Records: Oakdale 14-2, Bishop’s 14-1