STOCKTON — Nyco Mendoza knew that catching the ball wasn’t going to be enough.
On fourth-and-two from the Sierra 42-yard line, Mendoza pulled in a medium-length pass from quarterback Shane Johnson and then turned his eyes upfield, spinning his way through an Oakdale defender before racing towards the goal line for what turned out to be the most important touchdown of his high school career.
When he pulled in a pass on the ensuing two-point conversion, Mendoza helped give his Timberwolves a 22-19 lead with 1:24 seconds left to play against the second-seeded Mustangs. No. 4-seeded Sierra (11-3) held on to cap off its unexpected victory run to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship Saturday at Lincoln High and the second in its 25-year history.
It also marked the Timberwolves' third win over Oakdale.
“I was just thinking, ‘I’ve got to score . I’ve got get him off of me and I can’t let him tackle me, my team needs this and I’ve got to do it,’” Mendoza said. “We knew that nobody believed in us coming in, but we knew we could, we believed that we could do this, and we did it.”
While Mendoza’s gutsy touchdown catch put him in the running to be the game’s unlikely hero, he solidified that honor just one minute later by intercepting a pass from Oakdale’s Jackson Holt. The second-seeded Mustangs (9-4) were threatening to score as they approached the red zone, but Mendoza instead gave his team the ball back and the chance to run out the clock.
With Oakdale leading 19-7 at the end of the second quarter and receiving the kickoff to start the second half, it appeared as if the game was headed for a repeat of when the two Valley Oak League teams squared off during the regular season — a contest that the Mustangs won handily, 38-14.
But a championship defensive effort in the second half coupled with Mendoza’s last-second heroics caught everybody — including Oakdale head coach Trent Merzon — off-guard.
“I thought they threw the ball okay all night. It was a great play call on their part,” Merzon said of the Mendoza catch-and-run. “Great ball, great pass, great catch, great play. I love our kids’ effort, it’s just a great group of human beings and a great locker room.
“It’s tough right now, tough right now on a lot of people over here, but it doesn’t change how I feel about my kids.”
The Timberwolves started the game off strong by taking only two plays to drive 71-yards for the first score on the night which came on a Kimoni Stanley 69-yard run.
It would take the Mustangs nearly the rest of the first quarter to answer back before Zeke Saffar broke through the middle of the Sierra defense for a 47-yard touchdown run. The Mustangs then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and drove 28-yards before Isaac Valero scored the second touchdown in less than a minute, handing them a lead that they would hold until the game’s final minutes.
Saffar finished the game with 112 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown and was one of two Oakdale runners to break the century mark — Leo Ayala finished with 116 yards on 15 carries with a touchdown of his own.
Interestingly enough, the success that Oakdale had against Sierra during VOL play may have been what helped the Timberwolves on Saturday night.
Sierra head coach Chris Johnson said the brutal VOL schedule his team played did nothing if not make them a better football team by playing some of the best schools in Northern California, including last week's win over reigning state champion and top-seeded Rio Linda, and that experience paid off.
“We just talked about getting better all year — every game you play is a learning experience, and with the VOL, it’s such a tough league and there are such good coaches that you just get better each week, “ Johnson said. “We’ve kind of peaked at the right team and came out and made some plays against a great football team, and the defense held on at the end.”
And while Sierra had standout performances from a number of its players — Shane Johnson finished 7-of-13 from the pocket with 123 yards and a touchdown and chipped in 69 yards rushing with another score while Stanley finished with 149 yards on 16 carries with a score — it was Mendoza, Johnson said, that came through in the clutch.
“Nyco has been the unsung hero of this team all year long. Those other guys get the credit, but No. 7 makes plays on both sides of the ball, and he’s kind of the guy who flies under the radar and people don’t know a lot about him,” Johnson said. “I told him at halftime, ‘you’re going to make a play at some point that’s going to be the difference in this football game.’
“Well, he made two.”
Sierra 7 0 7 8 — 22
Oakdale 13 6 0 0 — 19
S—Kimoni Stanley 69 run (Jordan Shinn kick), 11:03.
O—Zeke Saffar 47 run (Dom McDonald kick), 1:40.
O—Isaac Valero 1 run (kick failed), 0:33.
O—Leo Ayala 56 run (run failed), 3:42.
S—Shane Johnson 1 run (Shinn kick), 7:18.
S—Nyco Mendoza 58 pass from Johnson (Mendoza pass from Johnson), 1:24.