When: Friday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Lincoln High School in Stockton
Who: Oakdale (Home, 12-1) vs. Vista del Lago (Visitor, 12-1)
Gates: Open at 5:30 p.m.
Tickets: $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, free for children five and under
On the line: The section title and potential NorCal Championship qualification
The Division III Sac-Joaquin Section football final is expecting some precipitation participation.
Forecasts predict a 70 percent chance of rain as Oakdale High’s varsity football team steps onto the turf at Lincoln High in Stockton to battle Vista del Lago for the section crown.
It’s Oakdale’s third straight trip to the section finals and it’s probably going to be a wet one.
“One of the things we really try to focus on is to not worry about things we can’t control as a game plan,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said on Monday. “We hear it might rain, but what do you do? We want to throw the ball and put (quarterback Spencer Thomas) in space. In my opinion Spencer has been the most electrifying player on the field the last month of the season.
“That being said, (Vista del Lago) runs the spread and they want to throw. That will be an issue for them.”
With an average of 157 rushing yards a game, the Vista del Lago Eagles out of Folsom haven’t been completely one-dimensional, but they have 27 or more passing attempts in all three of their playoff victories and tossed it 42 times in a 35-34 win over Cosumnes Oaks earlier this year.
With 2,867 yards, 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions, Vista has been very proficient through the air en route to an undefeated Sierra Valley League title and a 12-1 overall record. They are perfect since week one’s 42-6 loss to a state-ranked Oak Ridge team that will play for the D-I SJS title on Friday.
“It’s easy to see why they have won 12 consecutive games,” Merzon said. “They play great defense, their front seven is very good, they seem real mature, disciplined, are well coached and offensively throw the ball really well with solid precise routs.”
Merzon and assistant coach Tim Meyer had an opportunity to scout Vista during the team’s 28-21 win over Inderkum in the semifinals on Nov. 24. Vista was the better seed at No. 2 and ranked one spot higher (fourth) than Inderkum on the calhisports NorCal Division II bowl rankings, but some considered Inderkum a favorite to make the finals after a sterling preseason against quality large school programs and a history of postseason success.
Vista del Lago has never before reached the section finals in their four-year history at the varsity level. They landed their first playoff victory last year, but were dispatched 49-7 by Oakdale in the SJS quarterfinals. The Eagles attempted 39 passes (no touchdowns, three interceptions) in last year’s postseason contest and landed 115 yards for Logan Smith, who now plays for the University of San Diego.
Smith is gone, but a collection of strong receivers have combined to fill his shoes. Vista sports six receivers with over 20 catches and 200 yards, three receivers over 500 yards and is led by 6 foot, 195 pound sophomore Brad Rittenhouse (47 catches, 875 yards, 13 touchdowns).
Fellow sophomore and quarterback Matt Jimison emerged in week three during a four-touchdown effort as the Eagles topped Bradshaw Christian 65-35 and threw for four or more touchdowns in a five-week span that clinched the conference title.
It’s quite the feat to take your team to the section title as a sophomore quarterback, but he’s only the second person on the field to do that Friday.
Thomas did it as a sophomore in 2010 as Oakdale played to a 21-0 loss to Del Oro, then again as a junior in 2011 as Del Oro won 21-7 and rolled to a state bowl game. Thomas gets his third shot at a blue banner Saturday.
“It’s great to go back there and have the experience of playing in the finals,” Thomas said. “I think we are going all the way this year. I think we are ready for it.”
Since Oct. 12, Thomas is 38 of 44 for 754 yards with 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He also has two receiving touchdowns and four rushing touchdowns across that span.
“We run our entire offense through Spencer,” Merzon said. “What looks at times like simple runs are plays where Spencer has the option to pass or run himself.
“To watch him grow and mature into the player he is has been unbelievable.”
Merzon singled out one play of Oakdale’s semifinal win over American Canyon where Thomas impressed him in particular.
When a turnover gave Oakdale the ball at American Canyon’s 26 yard line amidst a pivotal third-quarter rally, a three yard run left the Mustangs at second and seven with Wolves defenders crashing to the line of scrimmage. When the initial play call failed to reach Thomas, Merzon elected to allow his senior quarterback to run his own play. The result was a well-executed pass to the flat that forced the Wolves to scramble up field and stop Marcus Northcutt after a 13-yard first down reception. Three plays later Oakdale scored to go up by 22 points.
“If you would have told me I would let my quarterback call his own play in a semifinal game with everything riding on it, I would have told you that you were crazy,” Merzon said. “But I told him to call whatever he wants and had absolute confidence in him.”
Thomas has made a habit of making big plays with big play receiver Austin Jones, who has shined against Oakdale’s toughest opponents all year. A steady run game under the feet of Northcutt and Nikk Ryan behind a hard-nosed offensive line (Tyler Malone, Jeremy Brandau, Thomas Angarole, Jaidyn Sheetz and Brynden McAndrews) has been the backbone of the Mustang offense all season, and that doesn’t hurt either.
Defensively, Oakdale has been incredibly stout. The defensive line patrolled by Ryan, Hondo Arpoika, Miko Arpoika, Eric Barragan and Josh Watts has stifled opposing teams all year. The talents of leading tackler Bastian Jimenez (117 solo tackles) and defensive back DeWayne Finney (eight interceptions) have been tremendous as well.
And there is no drop off across the defense. Linebackers C.J. Picinich (also defensive end) and Brock Whiting have been superb, while Eddie Machado, Nik Garza and Tanner Morgan patrol the secondary with vigor.
It’s an all-star cast, and the perfect roster to tackle a postseason that shows no sign of quit. A win over Vista del Lago will award Oakdale its third ever section title in 11 appearances. The 2012 seniors are already the winningest two-year year team in OHS history, but they can add to that prestige with a trip to the NorCal Division II championship game expected for the winner in the SJS Division III bracket.
It’s there that the SJS D-III champ is expected to face the winner of the North Coast Section D-II bracket (Rancho Cotate or Clayton Valley) for a shot at the D-II State Bowl Championship.