Turlock High football coach James Peterson stood along the right field line at Mark de la Motte Field in the fading autumn light, watching his team practices for Friday night’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal matchup against Oak Ridge in El Dorado Hills.
The Bulldogs girls' soccer team, playing a preseason game against Oakdale on Tuesday, forced the Bulldogs out of Joe Debely Stadium, sending the football team searching for an open patch of grass. Most coaches would be rankled by the disruption to their practice routine.
As his Bulldogs were put through their paces on the baseball diamond, Peterson casually chatted with players, coaches, team managers, and the media … looking very much like a man who knows something the rest of the world doesn’t.
Peterson just smiles, knowing he’s playing with house money.
The seventh-seeded Bulldogs (8-4) are on a Cinderella run after beating No. 2 St. Mary’s, an undefeated section powerhouse that was all but penciled in to play in the D-I final.
Instead, the Bulldogs delivered a crazy 51-50 upset of the Rams and advanced to play the Trojans (9-2), a section champion as recently as 2019.
“I think we can get down with these guys,” said Peterson, whose teams have twice before lost to Oak Ridge in the playoffs. “There’s nothing I see on film that we can’t rock with. We have a couple of like opponents, so that’s a gauge right there, right?”
The common opponents between Turlock and Oak Ridge are Pitman and Rocklin. The Bulldogs bested their crosstown rival 57-14 in the annual Harvest Bowl and the Trojans beat the Pride 61-0. Meanwhile, Rocklin beat Oak Ridge 21-7 while Turlock handed the Thunder a 14-7 setback.
Still, CalPreps.com has Oak Ridge listed as an 11-point favorite.
Think that fazes the Bulldogs, who were 21-point underdogs to St. Mary’s?
“There’s not an intimidation factor, but they’ve knocked us out of the playoffs twice now,” said quarterback Cole Gilbert. “We want a little payback on them. We know it’s going to take a lot, but we don’t have any doubt that we can beat these guys.”
To do that, Gilbert likely will need another big night.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior completed 19 of 33 attempts for 321 yards and four touchdowns passes, in addition to rushing for 145 yards on 11 carries. He also caught two passes for 26 yards against the Rams. For his efforts, Gilbert was listed No. 1 on MaxPreps’ list of 10 “Stat Freaks of the Week” throughout the nation.
The Bulldogs, who are making their first semifinal appearance since 2002, will leave Turlock High School at 2 p.m. with a police escort. Buses will make their way west onto Canal Drive, then take Main Street all the way to Highway 99.
Bulldog fans are encouraged to line the route and give the Bulldogs a celebratory send-off.
What awaits the Bulldogs in El Dorado Hills — besides temperatures in the 40s — is an experienced team coached by Casey Taylor, who guided Del Oro to six section titles between 2005 and 2016 and then coached Capital Christian to a blue banner in 2018.
Running back Jake Hall is the bell cow, rushing for 886 yards and 18 touchdowns on 124 carries (7.1 yards per attempt) and quarterback Maddox Varella is a steady leader, completing 65 percent of his passes for 2,344 yards with 25 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“They run out of the shotgun and are predominantly a passing attack,” said Joe Davidson, the longtime prep editor at the Sacramento Bee. “They run a lot of empty backfield stuff. They’re an experienced team and very big in the trenches.
“It should be a great game. Comparing the scores, it adds up to a competitive game."