An hour had passed since a heroic march across Lincoln High’s artificial turf had granted Oakdale High’s football team a Sac-Joaquin Section title, but a large contingent of the Mustang faithful were still lingering about the field on Friday night.
Most embraced, took time to pose for photos with players or catch a glimpse of the blue Division III banner still firmly clutched in the hands of senior and third-year varsity Oakdale quarterback Spencer Thomas.
On a night where courageous defense led Oakdale (13-1) to capture its third section title in school history, no one wanted the special moment to end.
Mustang defenders forced five turnovers and accounted for eight points as top-seeded Oakdale overcame a terrific defensive effort by No. 2 seed Vista del Lago to beat the Eagles of Folsom 22-9 in the final game of the SJS D-III bracket. The victory propels Oakdale to Saturday night’s NorCal Regional Championship against Clayton Valley on the same Stockton field.
It also does wonders to erase the memories of back-to-back losses to Del Oro in the 2010 and 2011 SJS finals, a historical note that can now begin to avoid publication.
“It really bothered me all year long. I thought man nobody deserves the fate to lose this game three times in a row,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “It was really heavy on my heart. I just didn’t want to see that for our kids, our senior class that has done so much and given so much to this program and our community.
“It would have absolutely broken my heart if we couldn’t get it done for them here. I am so proud of our seniors. Not many people would have the courage to get back on this stage.”
The Oakdale defense harassed Vista’s highly-touted sophomore quarterback, Matt Jimison, with an aggressive pass rush and tenacious coverage of the Eagle’s pass-heavy spread formation. Jimison was hurried in pivotal moments and tossed four interceptions to Oakdale defenders — all who rose to the occasion.
Eddie Machado landed the first pick on Jimison’s second pass of the game, rumbling 27 yards to the end zone to lift Oakdale to a 7-0 lead just three minutes, 25 seconds into the game.
“Defensive coordinator Hondo Arpoika and defensive back coach Tim Meyer just told everybody to read the quarterback’s shoulders, see the ball and react, make a play,” Machado said afterwards. “That was all I was doing, and it was an amazing feeling to give the team that change of momentum.”
Machado makes for a good representative of the Mustang defense, but this was truly a team effort. Miko Arpoika (10 tackles, two sacks) and Eric Barragan (sack) tackled Vista runner Josh Pfeffer in the end zone for a crowd-rousing safety midway through the third quarter. Bastian Jimenez (eight tackles, two forced fumbles) blocked a Vista punt that Nikk Ryan (six tackles, two tackles for loss) recovered. The play led to favorable field position a drive later and ultimately turned into Oakdale points when Thomas hit Austin Jones on a jump-ball score with 1:20 to play in the first half.
Senior Hondo Arpoika had five tackles, a sack and crunched Jimison during his throwing motion of a ball that was ultimately intercepted by Brock Whiting. Tanner Morgan and Nik Garza played terrific to break up Jimison passes and had an interception each.
Vista booted a first quarter field goal, but only reached the end zone after Pfeffer returned a punt to the Mustang one-yard-line late in the fourth quarter.
“You have to tip your hat to coach Arpoika, coach Meyer and (defensive line coach) Greg Ratto,” Merzon said. “It was an unbelievable defensive scheme. When our kids had an opportunity to make a play, we made a play.”
The Oakdale offense struggled to finish drives throughout the contest, reaching the end zone only twice on six drives that carried deep into Eagles territory. Oakdale went up 22-3 with 5:07 to play in the third quarter when a deceptive pass to Marcus Northcutt went 30 yards for a touchdown on fourth down.
Vista cut the lead to 13 points after the long punt return, but their stout defense was suddenly met with a determined Oakdale offense with 5:19 to play.
Vista had won each of their last two postseason contests via fourth-quarter comebacks, using a shocking 21-0 fourth-quarter swing to beat El Camino 35-31 and a last-moment touchdown to better Inderkum in the SJS semifinals.
They would get no such opportunity Friday, as clever execution of 10 consecutive Mustang running plays chewed all that remained from the clock. Ryan scampered for 23 yards on third and eight, Thomas bolted for six yards on third and two and Ryan escaped for three yards on fourth and one to end the game.
The first downs were the focus of coach Merzon’s discussion with the offense in a Hollywood-like timeout pep talk with less than two minutes to play.
“I just told them to trust me. Offensively we didn’t play well, but to that stage it was irrelevant what had happened prior,” Merzon said. “We got three plays for a section title. Put the last three and a half quarters behind you and just play your butts off for each other and let’s get another first down and celebrate a section championship.
“They did a good job of that and found a way to move the ball.”
“It wasn’t any one person in the huddle that talked about the importance of that drive, it was everybody,” Thomas added. “That feeling of losing the past two years was horrible and we didn’t want to feel that again. We just pushed through it and came out with a win.”
“That was pure passion in the huddle,” fellow senior Ryan chipped in. “I wanted those first downs more than anything else in this world.”
“Words can’t describe what was going through our minds right there,” Jeremy Brandau (senior offensive lineman) added, amidst tears. “We had to do it for each other. It was huge.”
Thomas accompanied his touchdowns with a 5 for 10, 58 yard effort while Jones hit Northcutt (50 receiving yards, 31 rushing yards) on an 18-yard reverse pass. Ryan ran 28 times for 186 yards to lead Mustang runners.
The loss ends a sharp 12-2 season for Vista del Lago and coach Chris Jones.
“It’s a major obstacle trying to play Oakdale as it is because they are a good football team,” Jones said afterwards. “But turnovers make you constantly trying to fight and overcome them.
“I thought our defense played extremely well, but (Oakdale) just kept chugging and plugging away at us.”