If you’re looking for the reason Oakdale High will be playing for its sixth Sac-Joaquin Section football championship this Saturday, look no further than senior running back Leo Ayala.
After teammate Zeke Saffar (23 carries, 251 yards, 2 touchdowns) broke off a number of long runs in the first half, Ayala produced critical plays in the second half that set the tone for Oakdale’s 51-27 victory over sixth-seeded Merced in Friday night’s Division 4 semifinal at The Corral.
Ayala tossed a fourth-down halfback pass to set up a crucial touchdown, had a tackle-breaking run to pull Oakdale out of a deep hole on third down, and scored the game-clinching touchdown with under six minutes to play.
That victory sends No. 2 Oakdale (9-3) into Saturday’s 6 p.m. championship game vs. Valley Oak League rival and No. 3 seed Sierra (10-3), which went on the road to stun top-seeded and defending Section champion Rio Linda 21-14 on Friday.
Oakdale won its first Section title in 1996, when the Mark Malone-coached Mustangs beat Oak Ridge in the Division 2 final, while current head coach Trent Merzon led the Mustangs to a Division 4 title in 2007. Merzon and the Mustangs won Division 3 titles in 2012, 2014 and 2016, and this will be Oakdale’s eighth appearance in a Section title game going back to 2010.
The Mustangs earned their trip to this year’s title game by dominating the second half, thanks in large part to the versatile Ayala.
After Isaac Valero’s 1-yard TD run with 17 seconds left in the first half gave Oakdale a 24-21 lead, the Mustangs turned to Ayala (108 yards rushing, TD) over and over in the second half. He produced a big play with his arm, a big play with his strength and then used his speed.
Facing a fourth-and-4 at the Merced 25, the Mustangs ran Ayala on a sweep to the right side – a play Merced had been containing much of the night. As the Bears’ aggressive defense sprinted toward the corner to cut off Ayala, the senior pulled up and tossed a pass downfield. Cole Snider caught the ball and was tackled at the 1, then Rylan Kerr punched it in for a 31-21 lead.
With Oakdale holding a 31-27 lead early in the fourth quarter, and facing a third-and-7 at the Merced 21, Ayala took a handoff and barely took a step before he was hit. Instead of going down at the 25, and leaving Oakdale with a fourth-and-12, Ayala spun away from one defender and shed a second, dashing to the Merced 12 to set up Valero’s second TD run of the night.
Minutes later, after a penalty had killed Merced’s next drive, Ayala put the Bears away with a 44-yard TD run for a 45-27 lead with 5:25 to play.
Ayala’s opportunities were seemingly endless, as the Bears were forced to dedicate their defense to trying to stop Saffar. The junior had more than 100 yards rushing on his first two touches, finished the first half with 199 yards rushing, and caught a 20-yard TD from sophomore Jackson Holt. When the Bears tried to stop Saffar in the second half, that created opportunities for Ayala, Valero and Kerr.
“That’s just our system, where you take something away, you’re going to give something up,” said Merzon, who realized early that Merced’s defensive priority was to contain sweeps toward the sideline. “When we saw that, Zeke did a great job of getting inside. The guards were giving him a window to get through, then he’d make a guy miss and he’d be into the secondary.”
Guards Diego Valdez and Max Marin helped the Mustangs score late in the first half, as well. After Oakdale took over on the Merced 39 with 1:51 left in the first half, Saffar ripped off a 24-yard run and the Mustangs were in the end zone a few plays later for the 24-21 lead on Valero’s plunge.
“A wing-T running team with time running out before halftime? Our kids did a great job getting that touchdown, and it sent us into halftime with the lead,” said Merzon, whose team had struggled with turnovers and penalties during the first half. “Then we come out and drive down the field to score again. We’ve got a two-score lead. That’s got to demoralize a defense, to get hit twice so quickly like that.”
A dominant offensive line helped pile up 498 yards offense, including 454 rushing yards – 234 yards in the first half and 220 in the second. Merced had just 207 yards offense for the night, and managed just 85 yards on 17 plays in the second half.