OAKDALE – Trent Merzon speaks with the confidence of a coach who’s been around a long time and has done a lot of winning.
So when he says his Oakdale High Mustangs could be good in 2019, you should listen.
“I think we’re going to be better,” he said. “We have a chance to be special this year.”
Merzon, entering his 20th season as the Mustangs’ head coach, is nothing if not credible. Oakdale sets the bar higher than most programs for good reason. If your leader’s teams have averaged 10 wins per season for nearly two decades, you respect the leader.
Oakdale, which graduated 18 senior starters the previous year, finished 9-4 overall and 4-2 in the Valley Oak League last fall. That’s a good season for the vast majority of teams but quite pedestrian for the Mustangs. They recorded their fewest wins in five years.
But look closer: They still reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals and barely were beaten by Rio Linda 31-28. Rio Linda cruised to the title the following weekend and eventually won the CIF D-V AA title while Oakdale reset.
One year later, the Mustangs return to the stage with a team Merzon thinks is deeper and, potentially, better.
“We have some key kids coming back for us that we’re excited to see play. We have a good group of juniors coming in,” he said. “Our kids work hard and have a good weight room work ethic. They’ve been lifting hard since January. I think we’re going to be good on both sides of the ball.”
Merzon’s optimism begins with junior Zeke Saffar, who totaled more than 1,500 yards -- including an impressive 10-yard-per-carry average -- in 2018 as a sophomore. Saffar, without question the next featured running back in a Wing-T attack which has produced Will Semone and Cameron Cherry in recent years, is one of the area’s fastest running backs.
Surrounding Saffar are fullback Rylan Kerr and hard-blocking wing Dominic Marenco. Returning center Owen Pena, a junior, anchors the line. The Mustangs will count on quick maturation from sophomore quarterback Jackson Holt.
Oakdale will be paced on defense by end Payton Bradford and inside linebacker Cameron Snow, who both earned all-VOL honors a year ago. Also back is strong safety Leo Ayala.
The Mustangs will be asked to bond in a hurry. After their traditional opener against longtime rival Sonora, Oakdale meets defending CIF Division I state champion Liberty, followed by a road test against Aptos and Randy Blankenship, one of the state’s most respected coaches. Oakdale will wrap up its non-league schedule against private-school power Palma of Salinas.
“We do think that our preseason will get us ready for anything we see the rest of the way," Merzon said.
Oakdale has claimed at least a portion of 13 VOL titles since 1999, a run highlighted by a state finals appearance in 2012 and a state title in 2016.
The addition of Central Catholic in 2014, however, further has toughened the VOL. Oakdale, Manteca and CC slug it out every year, and the survivors often claim section-title banners and state championships.
Since Central Catholic’s arrival, the Raiders and Oakdale are 3-3 head-to-head. So are Oakdale and Manteca. Conversely, Central Catholic has swept all five over the Buffaloes. One thing will remain unchanged: These matchups again will decide who rules the VOL.
“Central and Manteca are going to be dynamite, maybe two of the best teams in the area,” Merzon said. “We hope to throw our name in the hat as well.”