It’s said that there’s strength in numbers, and you’ll get no argument about that from Oakdale High School running backs Frankie Trent, Brock Whiting and Darus Nelson.
The trio has rolled up more than 3,400 rushing yards this season and helped the Mustangs (11-1) earn a share of the Valley Oak League title and reach the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
Oakdale will host Rio Linda (10-2) Friday at 7 p.m.
Even though Trent, Whiting or Nelson would be the featured back at virtually any other high school in the Stanislaus District, at Oakdale they’re merely cogs in the gears that grind out victories one after another, season after season.
Since the Mustangs’ last losing season in 2005, they’ve compiled a record of 94-22. Only parochial power Central Catholic has more wins (100) during that span. But while the Raiders do it with star power at the running back position – think Louis Bland, Ray Lomas, Rey Vega or Matt Ringer – Oakdale is all about system.
“I’ve always thought with just one guy, all 11 defenders can stare at him,” said Mustangs head coach Trent Merzon, in his 15th season at the helm. “With one special kid, it’s easier to take him away.”
Nelson likes being part of a unit, rather than being “the man.”
“It’s awesome,” said Nelson. “It’s great to know that when you do something good it helps the team. It might be you, or it might be (Trent) or it might be (Brock). We’re like a family.”
Nelson has been the hottest of the three backs lately, going for 578 yards (193 per game) the last three weeks.
“These guys are the epitome of unselfish,” said Merzon. “They carry out fakes, they block for each other, they want to win and they want to have success. They would rather be a small part of something big than a big part of something small.”
Merzon’s definition of something big is winning a D-III championship, something the Mustangs have done just once in five tries (the school’s other section titles came in divisions II and IV).
But something big might also include having three backs go over 1,000 yards in the same season, something that’s never happened at Oakdale. It nearly happened in 2009. Tim House and Devin Brooks each went over 1,000 yards, but Blake Raham fell 30 yards short after getting injured in a 49-30 loss to Inderkum in the D-III semis.
This season, Trent (1,400) and Nelson (1,200) already have eclipsed the plateau, but Whiting is 170 yards short.
“We really don’t care who gets the ball,” said Merzon. “We’re going to do our thing. If you decide you want to take away No. 47 (Trent), then we’re going to hurt you on the edge. If you want to take away the edge, then we’re going to hit you with the trap.”
Against longtime rival Manteca on Oct. 11, in a game played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Trent carried the ball an ice-bag-inducing 33 times for 223 yards and six touchdowns. Later in the season, against Central Catholic, Trent was “limited” to 125 yards while Nelson (236) and Whiting (64) combined for 300 yards, mostly on the edges.
“If one of us gets shut down, the other two are there and have his back,” said Trent, a 5-foot-8, 205-pound senior. “You can’t shut all three of us down.”
The way Whiting sees it, the running backs feed off each other.
“With us, it’s like a competition, but a friendly one,” said Whiting, a 6-0, 170 pound senior who started the scoring in last week’s 42-14 win over Vista del Lago with a 59-yard jaunt. “When I see them do something special, I know that I’ve got to go out there and do something, too.”
Perhaps the trio’s most special game came two weeks ago in the D-III opener against Pacheco. Going up against a physical defense that featured San Jose State-bound linebacker Frank Ginda, each running back topped the century mark – Nelson 192, Whiting 120, Trent 117 – and the team amassed 590 yards on 59 carries and won 50-8.
“They’re machine-like,” said Pacheco coach David Snapp. “I think your best bet to stop them is to keep them off the field with your offense. That’s what we tried to do.”
That’s how co-VOL champ Sierra was able to hand Oakdale its lone loss.
The Timberwolves controlled the clock early, got 135 first-half yards from Mark Paule and bolted to a 21-0 lead.
In the Mustangs’ defense, they were coming off an emotional 42-21 win over Manteca six days earlier, while Sierra was coming off a 37-7 victory over last-place Lathrop seven days earlier.
Even though Merzon refused to use that as an excuse, Oakdale looked flat early on.
The Mustangs eventually rallied to within 24-20, but Sierra converted on fourth and 1 on its own 27 and was able to run out the clock for a 31-20 victory.
For the most part, facing Oakdale this season has been like playing three-card monte against a Times Square trickster: no matter where you think the queen is ... it’s always someplace else.
“(Merzon) runs that offense to perfection,” said Snapp. “You got the trap and you’ve got power and you’ve got the buck sweep, and it’s really difficult to contain.
“I’ve watched the film of our game a couple of times and we were chasing ghosts.”