Ron Agostini

Agostini: Section final was just another Friday night in the VOL

Central Catholic and Oakdale engaged in a football game that played out more like a cage match.

Be strong or shed blood. Leave the weak stuff at home. Show me what you got.

Central Catholic won the rematch 21-7 Friday night in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title game, a fancy bookend to its 42-37 victory over Oakdale a month ago. There the similarities ended. The rivals hardly bothered with trying to fool one another.

It was like they signed a contract before kickoff: No fancy stuff. Toughest guy wins.

This is how it works in the Valley Oak League, the headquarters for these two powerhouse programs. Here, more often than not, the team with the dirtiest uniform come handshake time wins. It is rugged, relentless football – a refreshing counterpoint to the pass-every-down spread attacks in vogue – and it speaks to another time.

Central Catholic, a three-time reigning state champion, clinched its fourth straight section crown. For a team comfortable with success and runaway scores in the postseason, the Raiders probably savored this one more than the rest. Why? Because they were pushed. Hard.

“All teams are good in the VOL,” Oakdale cornerback/kicker Lane Trapp said. “Everyone runs the ball well. You can’t underestimate anyone.”

Central Catholic has learned fast after its second season in the VOL. A year ago, the Raiders heard the snickers around the Stanislaus District: Three straight state titles, right? Matches your third-place finish in the VOL!

Such was the walkup for this high-stakes summit meeting at Lincoln High. Central Catholic rolled through the VOL this season, but Oakdale doesn’t salute hardware. The Mustangs have won no worse than a tie for 10 of the last 14 VOL titles. To them, the section final was little more than the settlement of a continuing argument.

It figured to be close, and it was. The game lasted barely two hours, and it could have been decided in a phone booth. Oakdale attempted a halfback pass, the game’s only gadgetry. Penalty flags were few. The VOL no doubt recognized the absence of subtlety.

CC running back Justin Rice, he of the 292 yards and three touchdowns during the first Oakdale go-round, earned each inch of his 165 yards this time. The Mustangs, undersized and at ease pushing around larger foes, threw half their student body in his path.

Conversely, Central Catholic set its own traps against Oakdale’s metronome-like Wing T. Clutch plays and fourth-down stops by Raider defenders such as Austin Escobar and Josh Frowein produced the game’s closer-than-the-score victory margin.

“Both teams came ready for defense,” Frowein said. “Classic VOL matchup. Couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Remember, VOL packrunners take home major awards. Sierra, 5-5 and a fifth-place finisher in the regular season, was the last team slotted into the playoffs. That didn’t dull the Timberwolves’ celebration of their Section D-4 title after they sandblasted Liberty Ranch 42-0.

And third-place Manteca? The Buffaloes have claimed four section titles, spanning three different divisions, since 2001. They came within a snap or two of a state-final berth in Carson two years ago. Oakdale aside, Manteca has earned its own respect. Sonora, a VOL affiliate through 2013, hung a D-5 blue banner on its gym walls last week.

Central Catholic walked into the VOL gauntlet in 2014, and I think both the Raiders and their new league have benefitted.

“Maybe Central Catholic has gotten better because of us,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon reasoned.

Merzon’s point is well-taken. The Raiders’ championship run began before their league-switch, of course, of course, but one couldn’t miss the mutual respect extended on title night.

The relationship between Central Catholic and Oakdale always has been provocative. Many Oakdale families sent their children to the Modesto school over the years. The new rivalry has been enriched by that dynamic.

Now their games decide section titles. But to many valley fans who made the journey to Lincoln, they received a special reward.

They sat in on just another Friday night in the VOL.

Related stories from Modesto Bee