The Oakdale High football team is headed back to The Honor Bowl.
The Mustangs have accepted an invitation to play Archbishop Mitty of San Jose on Saturday, Aug. 25, at noon.
The Honor Bowl, a star-studded two-day showcase at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, raises awareness for military veterans. Using football as the catalyst, The Honor Group, headed by former high school football coach and military father Mark Soto, illuminates the physical and emotional needs of the soldiers who return home.
"We're a school and a community that believes in our military," Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. "We love our military and have a tremendous respect and admiration for our military. It's a tremendous honor to play in this game and honor them."
The game fills an immediate need on Oakdale's schedule. The Mustangs open the season at home on Aug. 17 against longtime rival Sonora and travel to El Capitan on Aug. 31.
Merzon, who is still trying to fill either a Week 3 or Week 9 opening, didn't flinch at enlisting his program for The Honor Bowl, which will include heavyweights Serra of San Mateo, Del Oro of Loomis, Liberty of Brentwood, and Southern California parochial powers Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks and Serra of Gardena.
In the last six years, Merzon has had at least 30 former players enlist in the military.
"I was fired up and excited when they asked us to play, and our kids were as well," he said. "Any time our community gets to honor our military, we jump at that and think it's pretty cool. We love playing football here, obviously, but it's more than a game and a final score. We have a ton of kids that go onto the military. We have a bunch of Oakdale graduates that have been in, are currently in, and will go into the military.
"We love it. We love to carry our flag. We love the national anthem. It's a part of who we are."
Oakdale has maintained an active relationship with The Honor Group since falling to Oceanside in 2012. For the last two years, Oakdale has hosted Hometown Honor Bowl games at The Corral, events spearheaded by cheerleader Emma Burke, who launched her own fundraising campaign.
The Mustangs topped Valley Oak League foe Weston Ranch in 2016, 39-14, and then blanked Lathrop 62-0 in the fall.
"Oakdale is so happy to be a part of the Honor Bowl again. The first time they came, they wore special camo uniforms. They're planning on wearing those again," said Rick Sutter, director of operations for The Honor Group. "They're just a patriotic school that loves giving back. ... Coach Merzon is just a great guy. He loves the event and he loves competition, and playing teams out of his area. I know Oakdale, as a school, will bring it as they always have."
Archbishop Mitty is a member of the West Catholic Athletic League, which produced two CIF State champions in the fall, including St. Francis, which thumped Manteca in the Northern California Division II-A regional bowl.
WCAL champion Serra of San Mateo also won a CIF State Bowl game, defeating Cajon 38-14 in the Division II-AA final.
It was a tale of two halves in 2017 for Archbishop Mitty. The Monarchs won five consecutive games to start the season, and then closed with a six-game slide. Two of those losses were to Serra.
"They opened the season 5-0, but got beat by Serra, St. Francis and Valley Christian," Merzon said. "They're good. When you look at their record, a football guy looks at that and says, 'It will be a good match-up.' We know how good they are and how good they'll be. This will be a good test ... It would have been a good test for last year's team, too."
Oakdale won't return many (if any) starters from a team that won its 13th VOL title in 16 seasons and reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship. The Mustangs were The Bee's season-long No. 1 in the large-school rankings.
That team was driven by 18 senior starters, including quarterback Marc Dickson, linemen Nico Sarala, Levi Ichord and Matt Kjeldgaard, running backs Cameron Cherry, Josh Jacobson and Bronson Harmon, and linebackers Jace Krick and Zac Campbell, to name a few.
"There's always a lot of work to be done. We'll be different next season, but that's what the offseason is for," Merzon said. "We won't return many starters, but man, what an opportunity for the kids. There are plenty of spots to chase and hungry dogs hunt better.
"The challenge is fun. To be honest, I don't dig Friday nights. I don't coach for Friday nights. I like the grind, the preparation, mixing our athletes within our system and finding out what we do well. Fridays are for the players."