Two spectacular long-distance scoring plays and a fourth down stop near midfield – those were the decisive moments that separated Oakdale High from its sixth Sac-Joaquin Section football championship.
Valley Oak League rival Sierra used those three plays, including a 59-yard catch and run with only 1:13 remaining, to capture a 22-19 victory over Oakdale in Saturday night’s Section Division 4 title game at Lincoln High School in Stockton.
Oakdale (which finishes 9-4) entered the game having won five Section titles, including crowns in 2012, 2014 and 2016. The Mustangs had dominated Sierra during a 38-14 league win in early October, and had lost to the Timberwolves just twice in this 25-year rivalry.
None of that history mattered when Sierra lined up at its own 41-yard line, trailing 19-14 and facing a fourth down with time running out. Quarterback Shane Johnson rolled right, taking the defense with him, then threw back against his body to hit Nyco Mendoza on a crossing route at the Oakdale 40.
That still would have left Oakdale in control of the game – a five-point lead, about a minute left and Sierra still 40 yards from the end zone – but Mendoza shook a tackler and raced the remaining 40 yards down the sideline to complete the play and leave Oakdale’s sideline stunned. Sierra converted the 2-pointer for the 21-19 lead and – with the wind at its back – booted the ensuing kickoff deep into Oakdale’s end zone.
With Oakdale 80 yards from the winning touchdown, it benefited from a pass interference call and then junior Zeke Saffar (19 carries, 115 yards, TD) broke loose for 35 yards on a swing pass to the Sierra 34. With 29 seconds left, sophomore quarterback Jackson Holt tried to hit one of his receivers at the Sierra 15 – but the receiver cut right and the pass went left, and Mendoza grabbed the interception with 20 seconds remaining to clinch the championship.
“We were going into a big wind, and we knew we’d have to get much closer to try a field goal to tie it,” said Oakdale coach Trent Merzon, whose team led 19-7 at halftime and had been averaging 49 points while winning five in a row going into the title game. “We were trying to make a play like Sierra did, but they did a good job pressuring the quarterback.”
Earlier in the quarter, it looked as if Oakdale might have this title wrapped up. With seven minutes left and Sierra punting from midfield, the snap sailed over the punter’s head and hit the turf about the Sierra 30. Before Oakdale could scramble to the ball, or tackle the punter and take over deep in Sierra territory, he boomed a kick that rolled to the Oakdale 5-yard line.
The Mustangs still had reason to be optimistic when Jaiden Williams made an over-the-shoulder catch to give the Mustangs a first down at their 38 with four minutes left and a 19-14 lead. Sierra stopped the drive there, however, forcing Oakdale to punt and setting up the Timberwolves’ game-winning drive.
“It cuts deep, I’ve got admit, and it’s going to hurt for a while,” Merzon said. “These were great kids. Not just good kids, great kids. Really good football players, but even better human beings. That’s why my heart breaks for them tonight.”
Sierra opened the scoring with Kimoni Stanley (15 carries, 150 yards) ripping off a 69-yard TD on the second play, then its other TD came in the third quarter after stopping Oakdale cold on fourth-and-one at the Mustangs’ 44. A few plays later, Johnson (123 yards passing, 70 yards rushing, 2 TDs) ran it into the end zone to cut Oakdale’s lead to 19-14.
Oakdale had converted its initial PAT kick, then missed the second before failing to convert a two-point PAT late in the first half. Those extra points proved to be important, as Sierra converted both its PAT kicks and a two-point conversion.
“They were a better team than the one we faced in league, they were hitting hard and making the big plays they weren’t making the first time,” Oakdale tight end/defensive end Peyton Bradford said. “It’s a difficult way to end our season, Oakdale wins these games, but it was a great run, including the Central Catholic win and our VOL championship.”
After spotting Sierra a 7-0 advantage, Oakdale tied the game late in the first quarter on Saffar’s 47-yard TD run, then Isaac Valero followed up a Sierra fumble with a short TD run for a 13-7 lead. Following an interception by Oakdale’s Noah Chelberg, Leo Ayala (15 carries, 115 yards, TD) broke loose on a 56-yard TD run for the 19-7 halftime lead.
Oakdale forced two turnovers and blocked a field goal in the first half.
While Oakdale had two 100-yard rushers, those numbers were deceiving. Saffar had runs of 43 and 47 yards on Oakdale’s first scoring drive, and had just 25 yards the rest of the night. Ayala gained 56 of his 115 yards on his TD run, and was held to 59 yards on his other 14 carries.
“Sierra was hitting the gaps hard, so hard it was tough for us to get in there and block them,” Bradford said. “There at the end of the game, we gave ourselves a fighting chance to win it. A Wing-T team moving that far downfield, that fast, we still had plenty of fight left in us. So long as you leave it on the field, you can’t be disappointed in yourself.”