Bill Rozak

When Sonora High School moves into the Mother Lode League for all sports in the fall of 2014, the football season is going to start with a bang.

Or more like mighty crashes of helmets and shoulder pads.

The Sonora-Oakdale rivalry will not end when the Wildcats exit the Valley Oak League next year. The schools have agreed to extend the 91-year, 95-game series for at least two more seasons by battling it out in each team's season opener.

"What's exciting, is instead of playing them in the last game of the season, we're kicking off the season with them, that's real exciting," said Sonora athletic director Rick Francis. "Everybody will be healthy and it could make a difference. But in the end, the tradition just had to continue."

"Who cares if the teams meet in Week 3 for a non-league game?" said Oakdale 13-year athletic director Dave Bacigalupi, who has bled Mustang red since 1979 as a 20-year-old coach. "There wouldn't be much impact. We thought playing each other in the season opener would have a much better impact."

The Mustangs had a difficult decision to make in scheduling the Wildcats for a non-league contest. It wasn't as simple for them as penciling in the date and time.

"We've been working with Oakdale trying to work out some of the problems that comes with having to play them in a non-league game versus a league game," said Sonora head coach Bryan Craig. "Finally, we got all those details worked out."

Oakdale head coach Trent Merzon enjoys to travel and takes his team out of the Sac-Joaquin Section to challenge bigger schools than his own. Last year the Mustangs traveled to Oceanside and also played Aptos at home, a year after playing there.

"Coach Merzon likes to go out and play powerhouses from out of the area and higher-division teams and it (scheduling Sonora) limits the teams we like to play (in preseason)," Bacigalupi said.

Also in the mix is Turlock, who Oakdale has played every year since 1926, according to Bacigalupi. By adding Sonora into the non-league slate, and with seven Valley Oak League games, that leaves just one game free.

Another factor, and maybe most important, Oakdale is in Division III which would make any loss to a lower-division team damaging.

"Sonora being in our league was huge," Bacigalupi said. "There's not much incentive to play now honestly, but it's always been a great, friendly rivalry. When they wanted to leave our league, it was hard for us, we didn't want them to go."

Sonora, on the other hand, has nothing to lose by facing Oakdale, well, except the game itself. A win would send shockwaves through the section and make the Wildcats an instant Division IV contender. But even a loss would improve Sonora's strength of schedule, which is a tie breaker in the playoff formula - combined wins of all opponents. And Oakdale is likely to win its share of football games.

Another issue for the Mustangs was an unbalanced home and away schedule.

"We were headed for a situation where one year we would host six games and travel for four, which is great," Bacigalupi said. "But the next year we would be playing four at home and six on the road, which is not so great."

Due to the scheduling difficulties, the Wildcats agreed to play at The Corral in Oakdale both years, but will split proceeds in 2015.

"We made some concessions but I talked with Coach Craig and Todd Dearden (Sonora principal) and we felt it was the right thing to do," Francis said. "So we're locked in for a couple of years and we'll try to keep this thing going."

"We wanted to make sure we kept that tradition and rivalry," Craig said. "Oakdale is a top-notch competitor. We've obviously struggled with them over the last few years, and, although we've played them tough, we just haven't got the 'W.' With how tough they are to beat, and the offense they run, they are going to help us be prepared as possible as we move into the MLL, and that includes getting prepared for the playoffs."

Oakdale has had its way in the series recently, winning seven in a row and 17 of the last 20. Overall, the Mustangs lead one of the longest running rivalries in California 59-31-5.

"They like playing us," Craig said. "It's not a mean, bitter rivalry like people used to think it was, it's a friendly rivalry. Both coaching staffs and players have respect for each other and it's actually become a real fun game to play."

"We love playing Sonora and love going up there," Bacigalupi said. "We're excited to continue the rivalry."

Tough slate:The Wildcats are again building a difficult pre-league schedule for their first season in the MLL.

After opening at Oakdale, the Cats will host Lodi in week two. Week three is still up in the air with possibly a road trip to Hughson and the Cats will host Trans Valley League power Ripon in Week 4 before starting their MLL slate against (random order) Summerville, Bret Harte, Linden, Calaveras, Amador and Argonaut.

"We thought scheduling was going to be real difficult, but I was surprised," Craig said. "We hear all these things with realignment about how nobody wants to play Sonora and I don't think that's true. I think people want to play Sonora. They know we're a class program."