Nestled between a dozing Dr. Jerold Polterock and a giant window that revealed the sprawling Central California countryside, I began to drift into a peaceful slumber aboard one of the charter buses containing Oakdale football fans neared the final stages of its journey.
Then suddenly, as if Oakdale High drum major Tyler Campbell were dramatically waving his baton at the snoozing ensemble, the orchestra began.
From seemingly all 20 rows of the bus broke the intermittent sounds of snores. The baritone melody of Mike Schmidt echoed across the seats, broken only by a the soprano tune emitting from Oakdale school board president Mike Tozzi, who was fast asleep in a nearby aisle seat.
I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sounds, before chipping in with my own solo as rolling fog and the soft hum of spinning tires eventually lulled me to sleep.
At the tail end of a trek that began with a 6 a.m. gathering in the school parking lot, continued with a six-hour pilgrimage to the mecca of California prep football and climaxed with stunning community support at the Home Depot Center in Carson, OHS football fans were finally showing some signs of fatigue.
The Oakdale faithful packed the stadium with an estimated 1,300 fans to well outnumber a Serra crowd that needed less than six minutes to travel from nearby Gardena. The 330-mile gap between Oakdale and Carson might as well have been connected by a very long string and two Dixie cups.
And it was truly inspiring to see and hear Mustang resolve seemingly oblivious of the scoreboard. Oakdale trailed 35-0 at the half of the championship contest, but you wouldn’t have believed it by listening to the thunderous chorus of “Let’s go Oakdale!” bellowing from the cheering section when Mustang players ran back onto the field.
When Oakdale scored each of their two touchdowns amidst a 15-7 swing in Mustang favor in the second half, that one person left home to turn the lights off must have heard the crowd reaction.
“You would think they just took the lead with that score,” a photographer quipped.
But while Oakdale rallied support behind their players in striking fashion, nothing quite matched the incredible sign of sportsmanship from the Mustang faithful at the end of regulation.
Oakdale followers roared as the team gathered to accept a hefty runner-up trophy, then unexpectedly picked up cheers moments later to honor Serra’s state championship with a standing ovation.
Never in my 10-year career as a sports reporter have I witnessed a football crowd come alive with deafening cheers to honor a football team that just beat their own program. It was one of the most inspiring moments of a season that has been riddled with enough heart-jerking moments to leave me a bit dumbfounded.
But then again, I’ve been dumbfounded a lot by this football program.
Four years ago the unexpected closure of my former newspaper gave me the opportunity to accept a position on the Oakdale Leader staff just as Oakdale emerged into league play. That fall I saw a football team rally to the section semifinals. They made the section finals a year later and repeated the same feat in 2011.
This year I had the pleasure of attending every OHS football game as the team blossomed before my eyes. They forged an identity in the preseason, trudged ahead during league play and emerged as champions of a special nature during a grueling six-game postseason that earned them a Section title banner, a NorCal Regional championship plaque and a hefty CIF State Bowl runner-up trophy.
I would be puzzled by the enthusiasm of Oakdale’s fan base if it weren’t for the character I see on the field. You don’t win 14 games in a single season amidst clear disadvantages in size and speed without certain intangibles protruding into the light.
For Oakdale it was the playmaking ability of everyone in scarlet and gold and the moving devotion to each other. From quarterback to cornerback, there wasn’t a player on that team that didn’t dazzle me at some point with a throw, a catch, a block, a juke, a tackle or just a beaming smile as Oakdale left the field.
Just like the Oakdale crowd, this team had no quit in them. It only makes sense that a season that revealed the most boisterous community support I have ever witnessed also publicized a group of kids most worthy of it.
If these young men tackle obstacles in their lives with even a faction of the passion and vigor they displayed on the gridiron, anything is truly possible.
And the community knows it.
Ike Dodson is a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 847-3021.