Sandwiched geographically between two renowned football programs in Folsom and Oak Ridge, Vista del Lago has had to fight for every bit of attention during its six-year existence.
A statement win in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game might have helped the steadily improving program escape the giant shadows cast by their well-established neighbors, who, like the Eagles, reached this year's section finals, albeit in higher divisions.
Instead, second-seeded Vista del Lago was done in 22-9 by another esteemed football program in top-seeded Oakdale on Friday night at Lincoln of Stockton.
Behind an opportunistic defense that produced five turnovers, altered or blocked two punts and had a safety, Oakdale ended Vista del Lago's playoff run for the second year in a row.
Eddie MacHado returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown; Spencer Thomas threw touchdown passes of 21 and 30 yards to Austin Jones and Marcus Northcutt, respectively; and Nikk Ryan rushed for 170 yards on 25 carries to lead Oakdale.
Vista del Lago played well defensively, producing four sacks and an interception, but couldn't overcome poor field position or its offensive miscues.
Sophomore quarterback Matt Jimison, who entered the game having passed for 2,490 yards with 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions, couldn't find his rhythm. He completed 11 of 28 passes for 95 yards and was intercepted four times.
For Vista del Lago, Anderz Mintz had a 33-yard first-quarter field goal, and Josh Pfeffer scored on a one-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. Pfeffer's score came one play after the Eagles' biggest highlight play: Pfeffer's 56-yard punt return down the left sideline to the Oakdale 1, helped by a key block from Nick Rametta.
Like Folsom and Oak Ridge, Oakdale (13-1) has made numerous trips to the section final. This was the Mustangs' 11th title game appearance and their third win after losing to Del Oro in back-to-back championship games in 2010 and 2011.
This might not be the last title appearance by Vista del Lago (12-2) under coach Chris Jones, who left Oak Ridge to build his dream program from the ground up on a hilltop above Folsom's Empire Ranch neighborhood.
Vista del Lago went 2-8 in 2007 without seniors and improved to 5-5, 7-4 and 8-4 before reeling off 12 consecutive wins this season after an opening-game loss to Oak Ridge.
"It's an awesome feeling to see a team and program grow like this," Jones said before the game.
Many of Vista del Lago's key players including Pfeffer, Jimison, sophomore wide receiver Brad Rettenhouse and junior safety Andrew Schantz (who had his seventh interception of the season against Oakdale) will return.
But Jones will also miss his seniors, including leaders Rametta, Evan Ewey, Chris Cooper and Chris "Bear" Grunsky. They took Jones, his assistants and the Vista del Lago community on a roller coaster ride in the postseason.
Vista del Lago rallied for 21 fourth-quarter points to beat No. 10 El Camino 35-31 in the quarterfinals and outfought No. 6 Inderkum 28-21 in the semifinals.
"I've aged a lot," Jones said. "We've shown some real grit. We've said to focus on the now, and our guys have bought into it. But we'll be pretty good next year, too."