A yearlong Oakdale High gridiron effort that started with early morning workouts just a few days after last year’s section finals defeat continued with 14 straight Friday night football games this fall.
Thirteen of them were wins to set a school record and propelled the Mustangs to a Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship rematch with Del Oro, but the 14th left the team painfully short of its goal.
On Friday, Oakdale (13-1) fell 21-7 to the same Del Oro program (13-1) that beat them 21-0 a year ago. Both games were at Sacramento State University in the SJS D-III finals.
“It was different than last year,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “I know the score wasn’t that different than last year, but our kids felt like we could have won this football game very easily.
“We won 13 football games and this is the one we were looking for.”
Oakdale trailed just 7-0 at the half after a missed field goal and a touchdown called back on a penalty eliminated chances of an early Mustang lead. The Oakdale crowd was ignited when a 35-yard pass from Spencer Thomas to Marcus Northcutt seemed to give Oakdale a 7-0 lead in the second quarter, but an illegal chop block brought the ball back and led to an Oakdale punt two plays later.
The Golden Eagles gashed the Mustang defense with two scoring drives in the third quarter for a three-score lead and rallied to quell a late Oakdale surge in the final period of play.
Oakdale made it 21-7 after a 35-yard kick return from Northcutt (79 offensive yards) sparked a nine play drive across 59 yards. The drive stayed alive after a fourth down conversion run by Marcus Hernandez (61 yards), who broke into the end zone from 5 yards out with 10 minutes, 36 seconds to play.
Justin Martin recovered his own onside kick just seconds later, but disaster struck on second and eight from the Del Oro 25 when Thomas (8 for 16, 67 yards) was intercepted in the Golden Eagles end zone.
Del Oro would fumble just three plays later, but landed a recovery and intercepted Thomas again with less than six minutes to play. The Oakdale defense stopped a fourth down Del Oro pass with 3:45 remaining, but couldn’t convert on fourth and 10 in their final possession.
Del Oro’s final snaps ran out the clock and left most of the Mustangs in tears. The defeat hit hard enough that a few Oakdale players couldn’t even talk amidst the post-game emotion.
Martin, who recovered the onside kick, landed 12 tackles on defense, ran for a key first down on Oakdale’s scoring drive and punched in the team’s only extra point, was surprisingly composed afterwards.
“Del Oro didn’t have any weaknesses,” Martin said. “They are tough and they ran hard. We made plays and it just came out the way it did.”
Martin is one of 17 seniors that will depart via graduation in the spring, and had time to reflect on his final season with the program.
“We just worked hard all season, and we knew that no matter if we won or lost tonight that we had accomplished great things, not only in football but that we have become better people,” Martin said. “We made our lives better this season and that is what will carry on.”
Fellow senior Manny Hernandez (forced fumble, five tackles) agreed with the sentiment, but was sad to see his last shot at a section title slip away.
“We played hard, but we couldn’t finish tonight,” he said. “We had the momentum after the onside but we fell short.”
Del Oro ran 47 times for 255 yards and evenly split 42 touches between Brandon Monroe (21 carries, 137 yards) and Nick O’Sullivan (21 carries, 131 yards). The Golden Eagles outgained Oakdale 298-189.
Junior Bastian Jimenez led Oakdale with 15 tackles. He played a big role on Oakdale’s defense throughout the season in his second varsity campaign.
“I feel kind of blessed to be a part of this team,” Jimenez said. “The game slowed down for me a lot this year and I am used to the speed of the game at this level now.
“It’s pretty amazing that no other team in (school) history has had 13 wins. We are one of the best teams to come through Oakdale.”
Jimenez is one of several starters expected to return for a 2012 season that has already generated some buzz. Linebacker C.J. Picinich (nine tackles) expects that team to be in the same position next year.
“We are going to be here next year and we aren’t going to have this feeling again,” Picinich said. “It’s going to be the right feeling.”
Del Oro is expected to play for a Division II State Bowl game title this month, and slipped into position 25 on the Xcellent 25 National Football Rankings by maxpreps.com on Monday.