The Acorns' Jared Martinez runs for yardage in last Friday's CCS playoff game at Los Gatos. Photo by Erica Bennett.

As far as No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchups go, last Friday’s Los Gatos-Live Oak football game had the potential to be a doozy. Even though the Wildcats were the clear favorite, the Acorns have an explosive offense that could give a lot of teams in the Central Coast Section trouble. Things just didn’t go the way Live Oak expected. The Acorns had no answer for the Los Gatos run game in a 41-7 loss in a Division II playoff opener. 

Live Oak ended its season at 9-2, and that was coach Mike Gemo’s takeaway message to his players in the postgame huddle, that nothing could take away from the fine season the Acorns put together. Live Oak finished in sole possession of second place in the Blossom Valley League’s Mount Hamilton Division, producing another solid season combined with exciting play. 

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” said A.J. Gustaveson, who had his best game of the season in rushing for 192 yards on 28 carries, both career-high marks. “We prepared all week, but we didn’t execute as much as we wanted to. But I’m proud of what the team did this year and proud of myself from coming back from injury.”

Indeed, Gustaveson was a shining star on a team that had several of them, as he made a triumphant return from a serious injury he suffered right before the start of the 2018 season. Gustaveson was cleared to play about a third of the way into the season, and his best-ever performance meant he finished his high school career in impressive fashion. Looking spry and nimble, Gustaveson credited the offensive line of doing a magnificent job of opening up holes and lanes, especially in the second half. 

“The offensive line did a great job, probably the best they’ve done all year,” Gustaveson said. “I felt great, and all I did was follow my blockers. I always try to keep my pad level low because if I’m lower, they’ll have a harder time tackling me. My mentality is to always gain positive yards and keep pushing forward.”

The 5-foot-6 Gustaveson has a knack for avoiding big hits, a necessity for any football player who wants to have a long career and reduce their rate of sustaining a concussion. 

“When I was young, I got taught to absorb the hit (where it would do the least damage),” he said. “I played running back from a young age, and all those years of playing added up as experience and helped me learn to avoid the big hits. Now it’s also a mental thing of running the right way.”

Gustaveson has tremendous vision, and against Los Gatos he consistently churned out yardage befitting of a workhorse-type of running back. Gustaveson’s long road back from a serious leg injury last year proved to be one of the most impressive comebacks by a player in the BVAL this season. 

“It definitely went better than I expected,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, I was worried, but as the season continued, it got better and better every game.”

With the exception of special teams, Live Oak was outclassed in every other facet of the game, especially when Los Gatos had the ball. The Wildcats had five possessions in the first half, scoring touchdowns on all of them. They set the tone on the game’s opening possession, going 80 yards on eight plays to reach the end zone. On the first play from scrimmage, they completed a 40-yard pass. 

That was followed by seven consecutive runs, and the Wildcats used their offensive line to run all over the Acorns, especially toward the left side. Los Gatos led 34-7 at halftime, and the game was essentially over. Live Oak’s offense started off well, scoring on its opening series of the game. Caleb Ojeda capped a 13-play, 79-yard drive with a 9-yard TD run to make it 7-7 with 4 minutes, 26 seconds left in the first quarter. That’s as close as the Acorns would get. They didn’t score again, while Los Gatos scored TDs on its next four possessions to break things open. 

Ojeda completed just 6-of-17 passes for 81 yards, though the Live Oak receivers struggled with three to four glaring drops. Even though the year ended on a down note, the loss could not put a damper on the overall season. Hit hard by the news of Jalen Rios’ cancer diagnosis before the first league game against Oak Grove, the players had extra inspiration to play the game they so dearly love. Midway through the season, Ojeda wore Rios’ No. 3 jersey during one of the games, an honor he held close to his heart. 

“I was very grateful to Jalen’s family to be able to wear his jersey out there,” Ojeda said. The night before the Oak Grove game, approximately a half-dozen football players visited Rios in the hospital. “It was tough to go up there and see him, very emotional. As soon as we walked in his room, we all started crying because it really shouldn’t be him. He has one of the purest hearts, and we were all asking why him because he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. After the initial interactions, we started laughing together and having a good time, just enjoying each other’s company like we always do. We went out on the field and asked what would Jalen want us to do. He wouldn’t want us to feel sorry for him—he would want us to play our hardest and drum up the score against every team we came across.”

Cancer struck another member of the Live Oak football family as assistant coach Richard Nelson passed away from cancer Monday night. Nelson coached with Mike Gemo for several years and will be missed. 

As expected, the Acorns had several players make the BVAL Mount Hamilton Division all league teams. Sophomore Justin Kester-Johnson and junior Nathan Zavaleta made honorable mention; sophomore Anthony Gracia, junior Elver Avendano, and seniors Elijah Fernandez, A.J. Gustaveson and Jared Martinez earned second-team honors; sophomore Brandon Hooks, senior Nick Lomanto, junior Zach Souza, senior Connor Hennings and senior Matty Blocker made the first team. 

Junior Mosiah Saulala earned the Offensive Back of the Year award, Logan Wiemann was named Defensive Linemen of the Year and Caleb Ojeda the Junior of the Year. Live Oak’s only loss in league play was to Oak Grove, 20-10. In six other league games—all victories—the Acorns won each contest by 16 points or more. It was truly a two-team horse race for the division championship, and Live Oak fell just short in its quest to win its first A-league championship since the 2005 season, when it captured the Tri-Counties League title. 

Live Oak will have to wait another year to try to break that drought; however, it does have a solid nucleus of players returning in 2020, including Ojeda, Wiemann, Souza, Jaxon Toombs, Hooks, Kester-Johnson, Gracia, Saulala, Avendano, Aaron Parra and Zavaleta. That’s a solid core group of returners, and there are usually a handful of sophomore newcomers who end up making an impact as well.  

For the seniors on this year’s team, the end of the season brought a wellspring of emotions, and most of the players were in tears as they hugged each other after last Friday’s game. For most of the seniors, it proved to be the last game of their careers. For some like Gustaveson, he plans on continuing playing football, most likely through the community college route. As the players go their different ways, they’ll always remember being a part of the Live Oak program. 

“What I’ll remember most about this team is the team aspect we had,” Gustaveson said. “In the beginning, we weren’t as close, but as the season went on, we got closer. We were a bunch of brothers.”

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