Most young athletes grow up dreaming of one day playing in a professional stadium.
The football players at Oakdale and Manteca high schools can check that off their bucket lists Saturday when they take the field for a noon kickoff at the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
The inaugural Levi’s Stadium Friday Night Lights event brings eight Northern California teams together over two days of league matchups.
Manteca (4-1), which advanced to last year’s Division II Northern California championship game, will “host” Oakdale (5-0) in a Valley Oak League contest – made all the more exciting by the venue.
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“This is really a big game for us, especially with it being in the 49ers’ stadium,” said senior fullback Frankie Trent, a fan of the Raiders. “I’m very excited.”
So is his backfield mate, junior tailback Darus Nelson.
“I’m so excited; it’s going to be a great time,” Nelson said. “But at the same time, it’s just another football game.”
Not so fast, Darus. It’s not just another football game … it’s an important matchup in the ultra-competitive VOL, a league that’s become a four-team round-robin between heavyweights Oakdale, Manteca, Sierra and Central Catholic. They have combined for four section titles the past two years.
Already this season, Central Catholic defeated Manteca 29-28 in overtime on Sept. 26, and Sierra knocked off Central Catholic 17-14 a week later.
A win for the Mustangs, No. 2 in The Bee’s large-school rankings, keeps them unbeaten and on pace for a showdown with top-ranked Sierra, which draws Lathrop on Friday and will likely be 6-0 when Oakdale visits on Oct. 17. It would also hang a second league loss on the Buffaloes and put them fourth in line for one of the league’s two automatic playoff berths.
All things considered, Mustangs coach Trent Merzon would rather not have to deal with the distractions that come with playing a day game so far from home, even though his team has experience dealing with extended travel when it beat McQueen 47-7 on Sept. 12 in Reno.
“We were excited when we first heard about it,” said Merzon, now in his 15th season at Oakdale. “But now it’s time to play, and I think where we’re playing is far less important that who we’re playing.”
Oakdale plans to leave town at 7:30 a.m. If the 2012 Division II state title game is any indication, about one-fifth of the town’s population will be making the trip.
Manteca is planning on heading out at 8:15 a.m. Both teams should reach the stadium around 9:30 a.m., some 21/2 hours before kickoff.
If nothing else, it’s a great way to check out the new stadium without having to pay NFL prices.
“We’ll try to get acclimated; see what shakes out,” said Merzon, who has won nearly 80 percent of his games in his 15-year career.
Last season, en route to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title, the Buffaloes beat the Mustangs 35-20 at The Corral, effectively ending the Mustangs’ six-year stranglehold on the VOL crown.
Now, instead of having to travel to Guss Schmiedt Field in Manteca, the Mustangs get the Buffaloes on a neutral field.
Would Oakdale have given up home-field advantage if it had been in Manteca’s position?
“I’d like to think I would have,” Merzon said. “But that game generates so much money, not just for football but for other sports, as well.
“At the end of the day, 15 years from now, the kids are going to remember this, and not for who won or lost. They’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, we got to play at Levi’s Stadium.’
“Manteca did the right thing.”
The event was originally scheduled for Aug. 29, with four teams involved – Manteca vs. Wilcox (Santa Clara) and Jesuit (Carmichael) vs. legendary De La Salle (Concord). But plans were scrapped when the stadium was plagued by poor turf conditions during the 49ers’ preseason schedule.
Once the turf issues were resolved, Levi’s Stadium offered a compromise: The original four invitees, instead of playing one another, could each pick a league opponent to play. So instead of two games on Aug. 29, it’s now four games over the course of two days: Santa Clara plays Wilcox at 5 p.m. tonight, while Elk Grove takes on Jesuit at 8 in the nightcap. After the Oakdale-Manteca game, James Logan (Union City) and De La Salle take the field at 3.
“Once we saw we could play Oakdale there, we decided we had to do this,” said Manteca coach Eric Reis in August, when plans for the game were announced. “This is such a special opportunity; we do lose the home field, but how can you say no to playing Oakdale in that atmosphere?”