A constant downpour turned the Placer High football field into a swamp on Friday, but the rain and mud couldn’t keep Oakdale High’s varsity football team from qualifying for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals with a thrilling 7-6 victory over the host Hillmen.
Placer missed a 26-yard field goal with 18 seconds to play to give Oakdale quarterback Spencer Thomas the ball for a quick kneel down to run out the clock.
Afterwards, Vince Thompson made mud-angels in the middle of the field, Daniel Linder slid helmet-first across a patch of loose sludge, Marcus Hernandez leapt as high he could and the rest of the Mustangs erupted into various displays of muck-ridden pandemonium after a game that had tested every fiber of their collective being.
“Talent didn’t decide this, all those other little intangibles did,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “It’s not talent that wins football games this time of the year, (it takes) determination, heart, courage and all the stuff we pride ourselves on.”
Oakdale fumbled away several snaps, saw questionable officiating bring a halt to successful drives and watched disaster after disaster with each attempt to punt the ball downfield.
But the Oakdale defense held Placer to just one second quarter score, battered Hillmen quarterback Collin Burnett all night and gang-tackled Placer runners on nearly every play from scrimmage.
Placer’s only touchdown came after a blocked punt gave the Hillmen a possession at Oakdale’s own 16-yard line.
The Mustangs chewed up almost five minutes of the game clock with a 65-yard drive to start the second half, scoring when Hernandez slipped into the Placer end zone on a Linder block with 7:09 to play in the third quarter.
The one-point lead appeared in jeopardy after a Mustang fumble gave Placer the ball with 7:20 to play in the contest, but one of the game’s rare pass attempts was batted by Thompson into the open arms of teammate Justin Martin as both defenders and a Placer receiver collided downfield.
Thomas broke free for a heroic first down run to Placer’s 29-yard line on the ensuing drive, but was forced to punt away a slippery muffed long snap four plays later.
Placer drove the ball to Oakdale’s 6-yard line after a long breakaway from Josh Turney, but Mustang defenders made big tackles and forced a wide left field goal in the waning moments of the game.
Thomas, who ran 11 times for 69 yards, had a difficult time corralling muddy snaps under center, but came up huge in the biggest moments of the game.
“During the week we had practiced snapping some slippery balls, but it was a lot different when the game actually came up,” Thomas said. “Coach Merz told me to just run hard and he gave me the opportunity to run the ball a lot in this game.
“I just didn’t stop my feet.”
Linder ran for 79 yards on 17 carries while Hernandez plowed to 69 yards on 11 rushes.
Oakdale stopped Placer on four fourth down attempts and watched two Hillmen field goals miss their mark, including one that bounced off the crossbar. Martin’s lone kick (the extra point attempt in the third quarter) ricocheted off the left upright but still found its mark.
“Ours bangs off the upright and finds a way to go in, and theirs bangs off the cross bar and stays out — and that was the difference,” Merzon said. “We have lost some games like that in the past and tonight we didn’t. We found a way to win.”