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'We found it.' Oakdale shakes off loss to rival Central Catholic, throttles Valley.

Ron Agostini
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OAKDALE — It took the Oakdale High Mustangs a while, five days to be exact, to recover.

They were humbled by Central Catholic 54-14 last week, the most lopsided loss absorbed by the Mustangs in their own Corral in many years. Not surprisingly, they labored through practices early this week.

Then came a Wednesday night workout during which the Mustangs regained their mojo.

“We turned it Wednesday night,” coach Trent Merzon said. “We found it.”

Back on its feet and grateful for another chance, Oakdale made quick work of Valley 54-6 Friday night to open the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs. The fifth-seeded Mustangs (8-3) will prepare for a more stiff challenge next week at Vacaville against No. 4 seed Will C. Wood, which enjoyed a first-round bye.

“If we were told we’d win eight games before the season, we would have been thrilled,” Merzon said. “We were just disappointed, really down, about last week.”

One of the area’s proudest programs bounced back in a big way. The Mustangs wore dominant black, their choice of attire for playoff home games since 2010. They have yet to lose in black. And losing didn’t even cross their mind Friday night.

They marched for touchdowns on their first six possessions — Max Moore accounted for three of the TDs — and led 41-0 at halftime, quite a turnaround from last week’s 40-0 deficit.

“What a difference a week makes,” Merzon said.

Oakdale’s Winged-T attack produced 302 rushing yards, numbers which would have grown if not for a running clock during the second half. Moore, sophomore Zeke Saffar (two touchdowns) and a small army of running backs sliced through huge holes.

The absence of drama hid deeper meaning. Oakdale’s senior class won only three times as freshmen. If eight wins seems modest for a program that has claimed three D-3 section titles since 2012, know this: An eight-win season would be cause for a celebration at most schools.

“We learned that we can’t come out cautious. We have to come out fast and strong,” said Oakdale quarterback Hayden Knittel, one of the team’s seniors. “It felt good to get the bounce-back win and to be playing in November.”

Valley (4-7), which placed third in the Greater Sacramento League, dressed only 21 after coach David Caldwell suspended two starters following last week’s 63-12 loss to Cordova. The suspensions hardly mattered. The 12th -seeded Vikings totaled minus-4 yards and one first down before halftime.

Mismatch aside, Valley was in “happy to be here” mode.

“This is a great atmosphere here. It reminded me of my high school years in San Jose,” Caldwell said. “I think our kids enjoyed it.”

So did Oakdale, which learned one of football’s basic lessons: If you fall, you must get up.

“We’re blessed to have another opportunity,” Merzon said. “Sometimes in life it doesn’t go your way, but I really like how this group responded. They’re great kids.”

Ron Agostini won several national awards during his 40-year career as a sports writer and columnist for The Modesto Bee. He retired in 2017.