The screen pass from Oceanside’s Tofi Paopao deflected off the outstretched arms of charging Oakdale pass rushers and lofted skyward like a lazy balloon, wobbling end-over-end toward the eager hands of Mustang lineman Eric Barragan, who let the ball slip through his fingers onto Westlake High’s artificial turf in Thousand Oaks.
Then a crazy thing happened.
The groans of 43 Oakdale football players gave way to grins and laughter as Barragan dropped to the ground and dramatically mourned the loss of a guaranteed pick-six less than 20 yards from the Oceanside end zone.
Trailing 34-0 in the fourth quarter of what had been a one-sided showdown with one of the state’s best programs, Oakdale athletes were finally ‘playing’ football.
The Mustangs would go on to maintain a second-half shutout and score two touchdowns against Oceanside’s first team defense, leaving the Battle for Veterans Football Invitational with some semblance of pride after a 34-14 defeat.
“If this game goes six quarters, I think it would have been a whole different ball game,” Oakdale defensive lineman and offensive tackle Hondo Arpoika said. “We came out with better goals in the second half and played much better.
“When we were down and our backs were to the wall, we worked harder, played harder and showed we can play ball with one of the best schools around.”
Oakdale’s collective backs were to the wall before they could blink. Beefy Oceanside fullback William Gulley blasted through the heart of the Mustang defense during a draw-trap on the second play of the game, rumbling 67 yards to pay dirt. A pair of three-and-outs from the Oakdale offense gave Oceanside a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and a brief sigh of relief, considering Gulley fumbled away the ball (to Nik Garza) on Oakdale’s eight-yard line during what looked to be a sure touchdown pass into the flat.
But the turnover was a rare moment of respite for the Oakdale defense. Oakdale quarterback Spencer Thomas would fumble the ball on the ensuing drive, and Paopao (8 of 13, 153 yards) would capitalize with one of his three touchdown passes. When an Oakdale drive stalled at midfield with less than a minute to play in the first half, Paopoa zipped a pass 58 yards for a score on the very next play.
“We got real frustrated real fast and the game got out of hand so fast our kids didn’t know how to react,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “We have never seen speed like that, which is why we came down here to expose ourselves to it.
“You have to tip your hat. They got after us and we made mistakes and didn’t play well.”
Though Oakdale was battered by a team ranked No. 1 (Division II) in Southern California by ESPN’s calhisports.com, the trip had plenty of positives. Merzon said the experience gained, coupled by tremendous bonding over the three-day trip west of L.A., made the event a huge success.
“We had an unbelievable trip,” Merzon said. “The goal coming down here was improving as a team. We improved as human beings and we improved as a football team.”
Oakdale ultimately scored on a 12-yard sprint from Marcus Northcutt with 3:58 to play in the fourth. The fifth of just six Oceanside drives in the second half stalled soon after and Josh Watts blitzed in from three yards out for Oakdale’s last score with 51 seconds to play.
Oakdale was outgained 343-270 on offense and was held to 120 rushing yards on 39 touches. Watts (17 rushes, 66 yards), Thomas (10 of 20, 150 passing yards, interception) and Austin Jones (seven catches, 118 yards) were responsible for most of the production.
“They were fast and they were really good,” Jones said. “We just made some mistakes that we could have avoided. At half time we said we would find ourselves, center ourselves, shut them out in the second half and score two touchdowns.
“We did just that.”
Oakdale plays host to Aptos of the Central Coast Section on Friday to complete a tumultuous preseason schedule. The Mariners fell to Oakdale 55-21 a year ago and are 0-1 in 2012, but represent a deceptively stiff challenge.
Despite leading for most of the game on Friday, Aptos fell just 12-11 to Encinal, a 2011 North Coast Section semifinalist that was in last year’s state bowl picture for Division III. Aptos returned only six starters from last year’s 9-2 program that slipped 35-31 to eventual CCS champ, St. Ignatius in the first round of the D-III playoffs.
The Mustangs will be hungry to close the preseason strong and excited to host at The Corral after the trek to Southern California.
“I hope it’s packed next week,” Merzon said. “I hope it’s all red next week and our kids are going to go home and play their butts off.
“They can’t wait to get home. These kids love playing football.”