High School Football

How Oakdale attacked the offseason after a tough loss in the semifinals

Oakdale was inches away from a berth in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championship in 2018.

And maybe more.

Instead, the Mustangs were stopped on the 1-yard line on the final play of the game and fell to Rio Linda, 31-28 in the Div. IV Semifinals last November.

The Knights would go on to win a section title and CIF State Division 5-AA Championship.

Despite the game coming down to the final play, Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said there will plenty of other chances to change the outcome.

“We have spent energy talking about how the season ended but not necessarily about losing,” Merzon said. “We weren’t ready for that moment.”

If there is one place where the Mustangs have unleashed their frustrations from last year, it’s in the weight room.

“This is the strongest team we have had,” Merzon, who is entering his 20th season, said. “We have 35 players who power clean 220 pounds or more. Most of those are more than that.”

One of those players is junior running back Zeke Saffar.

Saffar, who averaged over 10 yards per carry in his first varsity season, said he was 160 pounds as a sophomore and is now about 185.

“In the offseason, I worked on speed and strength,” Saffar said. “I run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 and squat 400 pounds and bench around 300.”

Saffar, who Merzon called “special”, will be the feature back in the Mustangs’ run-heavy offense with the graduation of Max Moore and Caleb Kuppens.

“We are going to play Oakdale football,” Merzon said. “We are going to run the ball and stop the ball. Nothing changes around here.”

Others expected to contribute on offense are senior tight end Ben Chappell and senior running back Leo Ayala. Chappell qualified for the CIF State Meet in the discus and finished sixth in the men’s hammer at the USATF Hershey National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championship.

Quarterback Jackson Holt will be the Mustangs’ starter and Merzon said he likes how competitive the 6-foot-3 sophomore has been during the offseason.

Oakdale has scheduled a tough non-conference with games against Sonora and Liberty from Brentwood. The Lions won a CIF State Division 1-AA title last year and return senior quarterback Jay Butterfield, who has signed with Oregon. The Mustangs also face Aptos, who won a CIF Central Section title in 2018.

“We have a tough preseason and that’s what gets us ready for the big dogs in our league like Manteca and Central Catholic,” Saffar said. “We are definitely ready to go back and play Central Catholic and try and redeem ourselves from last year.”


School: Oakdale

Record: 9-4, 4-2 in Valley Oak League

Players to Watch: Junior running back Zeke Saffar, sophomore quarterback Jackson Holt, senior running back Leo Ayala

Biggest Game: Nov. 1 at Central Catholic

Something special about school: “The Corral” is a community gathering spot during football games. A great environment to watch a football game.

Playoff appearances last five years: 2018: Lost to Rio Linda in CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Semifinals 2017: Lost to Manteca in Div. III Championship 2016: Beat Christian Brothers in Div. III Championship, Beat Bishop’s in CIF State Div. 3-A Championship 2015: Lost to Central Catholic in Div. III Championship 2014: Beat Inderkum in Div. III Championship, Lost to Clayton Valley Charter in CIF State Div. II NorCal Championship

Season Schedule:






at Sonora

7 p.m.


Liberty - Brentwood

7 p.m.



at Aptos

7 p.m.



7 p.m.


East Union

7 p.m.


at Weston Ranch

7 p.m.




7 p.m.



7 p.m.


at Kimball

7 p.m.


Bye Week

7 p.m.



at Central Catholic

7 p.m.

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Julian A. Lopez has been covering local sports for The Modesto Bee since August 2018. He graduated from Arizona State in 2016 with a BA in Journalism.