AT A GLANCE
WHO: No. 2 Manteca (11-2), No. 1 Oakdale (12-1)
WHAT: Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m. kickoff
WHERE: Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Lincoln HS, Stockton
COST: $12 adults, $8 seniors (60-above) and students (K-12), children 5-under are free.
The Manteca-Oakdale rivalry spans generations, but for all the history between these storied programs they’ve never met in a Sac-Joaquin Section title game.
That changes Friday when top-seeded Oakdale (12-1) defends its Division III crown against No. 2 Manteca (11-2), the 2016 champion Division IV, at Lincoln High’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium in Stockton.
It will be a familiar scene for both teams, perhaps more so for Trent Merzon and his Mustangs who have reached the Division III final in six of the last seven years.
Oakdale is making its 15th final-round appearance — the third most in the section behind Central Catholic (21) and Del Oro (17) — while it’s the 10th for Manteca, and they each own five championship banners.
“Getting to the section finals is difficult, but because we’re here with Manteca a lot of people think it’s more important,” Oakdale’s head coach said. “I don’t think so, it’s as big as it is already. How does big get bigger? It’s important to the kids and our fanbase as it is for Manteca and their fanbase. We have a lot of respect for them and I’d like to think they do for us.”
The Mustangs hold a 52-41-4 lead in the all-time series dating back to 1923, and Merzon is 11-5 against former Delta College teammate and Manteca head coach Eric Reis. Oakdale is a heavy favorite going into the 98th meeting after handing the Buffaloes a 36-15 defeat in VOL play. The Mustangs went on to claim their 13th league title in the last 16 years.
Manteca struck first in the Oct. 6 showdown at The Corral and took an 8-0 lead into the second quarter before it was stumped by drive-killing turnovers and drops.
“They beat us pretty handily last time,” Reis said. “They played real well and obviously we’re hoping to play a lot better this time. A lot of it was them. They make you play a click faster than you are used to and that’s when turnovers and mistakes happen. The scoreboard is what it is.”
Merzon sees it differently.
“We’re smart enough to know that game was very close regardless of what everyone wants to say,” he said. “We know that defensively we got big turnovers and big moments and we were able to finish drives because we converted some third- and fourth-down plays. It really could have went either way. One or two plays here and there and could have swung the tide.
“Take the final score out of the equation. It’s irrelevant.”
Both squads are rolling, especially on the offensive end. Oakdale outscored its three previous postseason opponents and outsprinted fourth-seeded Patterson — down just 28-20 at halftime — to the finish line in its 63-27 semifinal win. Fullback Josh Jacobson set a school record with 359 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 29 carries, while Cameron Cherry eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark for the season with a 221-yard, two-score effort.
Bronson Harmon and Zac Campbell are other key figures in the loaded backfield of Oakdale’s high-octane Wing-T, but Manteca is also mindful of quarterback Marc Dickson and the passing attack. He and receiver Hunter Falconi had one of their best games of the season in the previous tussle with Manteca, as the two hooked up for a pair of touchdowns.
“Dickson is good too, and that part is kind of scary,” Reis said. “He threw pretty well against us last time and we expect him to a be a wild card. You have to commit so much of your effort to stop their running backs and all of the sudden they run play-action and it’s six (points).
“They’re just a machine, and it starts with the linemen up front. It’s one of the more devastating lines I’ve seen.”
Gino Campiotti and the Manteca offense have been on their game since the loss to Oakdale. After tallying 62 points in playoff wins over Rio Americano and American Canyon, the Buffaloes held off No. 3 Christian Brothers 43-38 for the second time this year and did it without top rusher Trabron Russell (757 yards, 15 TDs) and top receiver Presley Keltner (642 yards, six TDs). Both were out with sprained ankles, but Reis expects them to be “ready to roll” come Friday.
With Russell missing the last two contests, Campiotti himself shouldered the load by racking up back-to-back 100-yard efforts with 10 rushing touchdowns. For the season, he has completed 173 of 271 passes for 2,692 yards and 30 touchdowns — all single-season school records.
Oakdale got a taste of what’s to come last week. Patterson standout Gabe Sanchez has similar abilities and carved up the Oakdale defense for 278 passing yards and two touchdowns to go with 131 rushing yards and another score, but the Tigers were limited to just seven points in the second half.
“Patterson is dynamic on offense and I see why they’ve had so much success,” Merzon said. “They put up video game numbers and put you in a bind schematically and have great athletes in space.
“It helped us a little more for this week seeing a quarterback that active. This group has seen great quarterbacks and athletes in space the past two years. How can we handle the Buffaloes this week?”
Merzon boasts an experienced bunch, which features 21 senior starters who have played in 30 games in the last 15 months and captured the CIF State Division III-A championship last season.
No matter the result Friday, at least one VOL team will earn a CIF NorCal Bowl Game bid for a sixth straight year. Manteca lost its only NorCal appearances in 2013 and 2016.
“It’s almost unfortunate that one of these teams has to lose out as far as the state playoffs,” Merzon said. “Whoever loses is still one of the top teams in Northern California. It’s going to be a great game. I’m proud of the Valley Oak League — everything about it and what it stands for.”