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VOL title, perfect records on line for Sierra, Oakdale

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POSTED October 17, 2014 12:54 a.m.

Sierra hasn’t had a losing record since 2005, Jeff Harbison’s first year as the school’s head football coach, and advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs in five of the last six years.

Still, the Timberwolves have toiled under the enormous shadows casted by Manteca and Oakdale, the Valley Oak League’s long-standing powerhouses, winners of the last two SJS Division III championships and CIF Regional Division II Bowl Game participants. Sierra became more of an afterthought with defending state small-school champion Central Catholic added to the VOL mix.

Tonight, the boys in blue and silver have a chance to cement what could be the biggest breakout moment in program history, as Oakdale visits Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium for a colossal clash between the league’s remaining unbeaten teams.

Oakdale is No. 4 in Cal-Hi Sports’ CIF NorCal Division II Bowl Rankings and ninth on the MaxPreps SJS Top-25 list. Sierra is ranked sixth  by Cal-Hi Sports, and eighth by MaxPreps.

“They have always given us a challenge,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said. “Honestly, I think Sierra has been one of the best-kept secrets in the Valley for a long time. Everybody just now is figuring out how good they are.

“They’re as good as advertised,” added Merzon, who saw Sierra in person last Friday at Lathrop. “Well-coached, big, athletic, physical, talented — I like them. I like them a bunch.”

High praise coming from a coach who boasts one of the most impressive résumés in the region. He has led the Mustangs to six section title-game appearance and two SJS championships. In 2012 Oakdale became the first VOL school to earn a spot in a CIF State Bowl Game. Last year, Manteca broke the Mustangs’ dominant seven-year reign in which they seized at least a share of the VOL title — no easy task considering the competition within the conference.

“They play Oakdale football the same way they have in my 13 years of coaching,” said Harbison, who previously coached in the lower levels for Sierra. “They come out, they execute and they play hard-nosed football from snap to whistle. That’s a credit to Trent Merzon and his coaching staff. They’ve been doing it for a long time now.”

Oakdale showed off its potent Wing-T offense on the grandest of stages this past Saturday at Levi’s Stadium, where it diced up defending VOL champ Manteca, 42-21. Hard-charging 5-foot-8, 210-pound Frankie Trent stole the show, as he pummeled the Buffalo defense for 223 yards and six touchdowns on 33 carries.

But in Oakdale’s attack, any number of players can have their turn in the limelight. Quarterback Adam Olsen along with Brock Whiting and the speedy Darus Nelson are other big-play threats out of the backfield.

“They have a triple threat on offense, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see their quarterback keep a few as well,” Harbison said. “(Olsen) doesn’t throw much, but when he has had to he can put it where it needs to be. They suck you in with the run, run, run and have the ability to hurt you through the air.”

Sierra can run it, too. With titanic tackles Zak Derossett (6-5, 280) and Joshua Fala (6-6, 335) and stout center Joseph Valenzuela (6-0, 280) paving the way, Mark Paule Jr. (1,112 yards, 24 TDs) has been one of the state’s most productive rushers.

Oakdale’s smash-mouth defense, headed by defensive end Landon Ichord (5-11, 240) and linebacker Broderick Medrano (6-1, 240), has proven more than capable of stuffing the run. Harbison doesn’t mind putting it on the shoulders of first-year quarterback Devin Nunez (63.4 completion percentage, 795 yards, 7 TDs, 2 picks), if need be.

“I think Devin has proven himself throwing the football,” Harbison said. “Last week he didn’t have great numbers but our receivers had a lot of drops. I have all the confidence in the world in Devin.”

Hunter Johnson (440 yards, 4 TDs), a big-time playmaker at 6-4, 205 pounds, didn’t have a catch in last week’s 37-7 win at Lathrop, but Oakdale is well aware of his talents and will do its best to try and contain him.

“Hunter is as tough matchup for any team they play,” Merzon said.

Merzon feels that way about Sierra in general.

“They do a super job of running their offense,” he said. “They’ll spread you out and play catch. They’re going to make you tackle in space and if you outnumber them in space they’ll run it between the tackles. What they do isn’t very complex but very difficult to deal with.

“Defensively they’ve simplified things a little bit, which is better. They line up and play football, and that’s what most good teams do.”

Coming off the big win in Santa Clara, Merzon isn’t worried about a letdown for his team’s next marquee matchup. The Mustangs remain focused on the prize, and though big games are still ahead for both teams — Sierra gets Manteca on Halloween night, while Oakdale hosts Central Catholic in Week 10 — the winner tonight makes a giant leap toward the VOL throne.

“Our goal was not to beat Manteca this season, our goal was to win the Valley Oak League title,” Merzon said. “Right now, that title runs through Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium. Sierra has our full attention. We’re excited for Friday night.”

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