If the state bowl buzz came from a bee, Oakdale High varsity football players and coaches would have squashed it by now.
While area prognosticators bellow grandiose expectations for the 2012 Mustangs, Oakdale players and coaches continue the daily grind with one thought in mind.
This week, that “who’s next” coincidently happens to be the hive for most of that buzzing. The Mustangs were invited to Friday’s Battle for Veterans Southern California Football Invitational, where Oakdale (ranked No. 1 in the Division II NorCal region by calhisports.com) meets highly touted Oceanside (ranked No. 1 in the Division II SoCal region).
“I thought it was right up our community’s alley,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “It honors our military and it is going be a great opportunity for our kids to go down there and play. It has absolutely nothing to do with regional championship games (where winners advance to a state bowl game).
“It doesn’t matter who we play, if we win a section championship and go undefeated we go to a regional game. I just think the best way to win the Valley Oak League is to play great football games and the best way to play for a section title is to play great football programs. Our season is all about getting ready for the VOL.”
Oakdale’s conference preparedness has resulted in five consecutive league titles since the team’s 2007 section championship season. The VOL hasn’t quite been as prepared for Oakdale, evident by last year, when Oakdale forced every league opponent into a running-clock and outscored the conference 344-91.
The Mustangs return eight starters on defense and four to the offense, including quarterback Spencer Thomas, center Tyler Malone, running back Marcus Northcutt and receiver Austin Jones.
At 6 feet, 2 inches and 215 pounds, Jones is formidable offensive threat. He caught four passes for 66 yards in Oakdale’s win over Turlock on Aug. 24, but showed room for improvement when he allowed key throws (including a few in the end zone) to be broken up by defensive backs. If Jones can develop serious chemistry with Thomas, the two could be an incredible duo.
Thomas threw for over 1500 yards with 14 touchdowns and a host of rushing yards last year. He will miss top runner and co-Oakdale Athlete of the Year, Marcus Hernandez, but Josh Watts fills his void at fullback while Marcus Northcutt bulked up for 2012 and improved his role from the wingback position. But those are only a few of the offensive weapons Oakdale’s Wing-T has to offer. The deceptive system allows for runners to spring out of the backfield from all angles and Nikk Ryan, Miko Arpoika and Max Stevens (a sophomore) have already seen looks with the rock. And that’s not even mentioning the potent passing game Thomas presents in his third year with the team.
“The Wing is a great system, and for us it gives the flexibility to maneuver within our system to manipulate our own kids’ specific talents,” Merzon said. “It may not be the sexiest offense out there. It’s a high maintenance offense and it’s actually very complicated.”
Oakdale’s defense is about as sexy as a 4-3 system can be. It features the same monster line from 2011 in Ryan, Miko Arpoika, Hondo Arpoika and Eric Barragan. Sure-tackling linebackers Bastian Jimenez and C.J. Picinich also return, as does cornerback Eddie Machado and safety Nik Garza, the unheralded one of the group who quietly provided the Oakdale defense with a tremendous season in 2011.
“No one was talking about (Garza) last year, but he had as good a year defensively as anyone on the football field,” Merzon said. “He is unbelievably talented, gifted and tough as they come.”
Oakdale’s key additions to the defense are safety Tanner Morgan and outside backer Brock Whiting, a sophomore.
Morgan is the student body president, and made his presence felt at the varsity level by crashing into Turlock’s backfield last week. He’s one of nine wrestlers on the squad, nearly all starters. Around the same amount of football players play basketball and nearly all are involved in other sports at OHS, a surprising notion considering the recent trend of high school athletes specializing in one sport.
“Wrestlers make great football players, and as far as grinding and flat out being tough, wrestling is it,” Merzon said. “I love having our kids play other sports.”
Thomas plays basketball and baseball, but nothing compares to his role on the football team, where the success of the team rides on his lean shoulders. Thomas is 23-5 as a starter, and plans to ignore the buzz and slowly add several more to that first number in 2012.
“It’s really fun playing with this group of guys, who have all been playing together since Pop Warner,” Thomas said.
“There are high expectations for us, but we are the ones who control what we do, and we try not to let other people’s opinions affect us.
“We just have to stay together because our strength is in numbers and if we stay together and do our individual jobs we will be a good team.”