OAKDALE-Sonora senior co-captain Brandon Camara spoke passionately to his teammates after Friday night's football loss to arch-rival Oakdale.
His message to his Wildcat teammates was one of love and togetherness.
"I told these guys that this was the best season of my life and that I couldn't imagine playing with a different crew. They've had my back and I've had theirs, it's been an amazing season," said fullback/linebacker Camara. It was life changing for me. I'm gonna go on playing because of them. I love every single one of them."
If effort and heart counted as wins, this Wildcat team wouldn't have lost this season. On Friday against the Mustangs was no different. Sonora gave everything it had only to fall short and have its season come to an end with a 49-21 loss.
"I'm sad for my seniors," said Wildcat head coach Bryan Craig. "Here's another game where they worked their butts off and played hard and we just didn't have enough -there's just not enough gas in the tank to finish these games against these schools. It's hard when you see the effort these kids put forth."
In the first half, the Wildcats had plenty in their gas tank.
Trailing 7-0 late in the first quarter, Sonora quarterback Casey Holman made a play-action fake then fired a perfect strike down the middle of the field to Joe Maloney who made the grab in stride and sprinted the last 15 yards of a 48-yard score to make it 7-7.
"We just put that play in this week because of the way their defense plays," said Holman. "It worked exactly right and Joe was wide open in the middle of the field. I just threw it and prayed."
Oakdale grabbed back the lead on their next drive, making the big plays through the air which is not their specialty. The Mustangs like to dominate on the ground and, until the final play of the first half, Sonora held Oakdale to just 67 rushing yards on 18 carries.
"I was impressed with the way we battled physically," said Craig. "We continued to battle physically. I watched Oakdale play earlier this year and they are a physical team. And I felt like we were the more physical team, at least for a half. I'm proud of the kids."
With 9:13 left in the first half, Sonora went on a drive that was almost perfect. Holman and Camara bludgeoned Oakdale with a one-two punch starting on the Wildcat 26.
Holman for nine yards. Holman for 10 yards. Holman for three. Holman for three more. Camara for three. Holman for eight. Holman for nine. Camara for six.
The Cats burned 7:30 off the clock but turned the ball over on downs at the Mustang 5.
The Cats got a scare at the end of the first half when Oakdale's Marcus Northcutt scrambled down -it seemed like from the Wildcats side -an ever-expanding sideline. Northcutt dodged and weaved for 80 yards before being tackled at the Wildcat 4.
"I was feeling good at halftime," said Craig whose team trailed just 14-7. "I said coming in here, if we could move the ball and score we had a chance. And we were moving the ball all night. Stopping us, I don't think Oakdale did a very good job really of stopping us. We made a couple of mistakes and got ourselves out of schedule. We ended up in a first and long or second and long and that stalled our drives. And then we got into the red zone a couple of times and stalled out. We left 14 points on the field right there. I was real happy with the way we moved the ball and I didn't know we'd be able to do that against that defense."
Oakdale scored quickly with a big play on the first possession of the third quarter and it was like the dam burst.
With Sonora driving again immediately after going down 21-7, the Mustangs got their only turnover and returned it for a 57-yard score to make it 28-7.
But again, the Cats weren't going to quit.
Holman took a snap on third down, made a pitch to Cristian LaPertche and the slotback instead of running, cocked his arm and threw to a wide open Thomas Erwin who made the catch and sprinted the rest of the way for a 71-yard touchdown to make it 28-14 with 8:01 left in the third quarter. But the Cats would get no closer.
Sonora scored its final touchdown on another outstanding run by Holman, a 56-yard keep around the right side. Holman finished a physical rushing night with a team-high 148 yards on 22 carries.
"I was ready tonight - I didn't want this season to end," said Holman. "I wanted to keep going. I thought we played our hearts and we wanted this game, but it didn't go our way."
"Casey tried to will us a win," said Craig. We have talked about how the game has slowed down for Casey and how he was doing better and better. If we had three of four more games, I'd like to see what he could do because he did an outstanding job of running our offense."
Camara finished with 69 tough, bruising yards on 17 carries.
"Brandon is a beast," said Craig. "They couldn't run inside on us in the first half and Brandon had a lot to do with that. He makes big plays, he's tough, they've got to account for him and block him. And then on the offensive side, you give him the ball and he gets those tough yards. He's our horse."
As a team, the Wildcats gained 234 yards on 48 carries while also throwing for 147 yards for 381 total. The Mustangs gained 515 total yards.
"I just wished I was able to give it more than I could have," said senior lineman Jessey Ahrenholtz. "I wanted to give it more, but my body was kind of not agreeing with me. But I gave all my heart this season. Despite the wins and losses, it was the best season of my life. It was a pleasure this whole season to play with these guys and I'm gonna miss them. I love them with all my heart, we're like a family."
The Wildcats finished the season 4-6, including 3-4 in the grueling Valley Oak League while the Mustangs (9-1, 7-0) won their sixth consecutive league title.
Sonora played only two Division IV schools (Calaveras and Lathrop) - the division they would have played in postseason. The rest were higher-division. The top three teams in the VOL (Oakdale, Sierra, Manteca) are playing in the Division III playoffs.
"Tough, tough loss," said LaPertche, a senior. "It's not the way I wanted to end the season. We had a really good team. We were a family, all of us are really close. Even though we lost tonight, we worked hard and never gave up."
"Yesterday (Thursday) we had our traditional meeting at the end of our practice where the seniors talked to the juniors about what it means to be a Wildcat," said Craig. "And in the 21 years I've been here, it was probably the most emotional one I've ever been involved with. These kids are tight. They're a family. And Brandon Camara said it tonight here after the game, he goes, 'Wins and losses don't measure anything - because we became a family tonight.' That means more to me than anything. That shows you what these seniors were all about. They did the rights things on and off the field. I'm just sad that they weren't rewarded with more wins."