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Buffaloes rode Laurel, Sharmoug on championship run

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Alex Laurel, above photo, set Manteca High records this past season but owes much of it to his linemen anchored by Billy Sharmoug, right.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED December 28, 2013 12:52 a.m.

For months, Billy Sharmoug stepped to the microphone and stumped for teammate Alex Laurel.

Sharmoug, Manteca’s mountain-sized offensive lineman, predicted that Laurel – the versatile, fast-action running back – would be the Valley Oak League’s MVP.

Just watch, he said as early as August. “Sometimes you see a player and all you can say is ‘Wow.’ Alex is one of those guys.”

As we’ve come to trust, never ever doubt Sharmoug.

Laurel earned the league’s top individual honor with a record-breaking season that saw him finish among the state’s most explosive touchdown producers.

A funny thing happened along the way, though. As attention began to shift toward Laurel and his penchant for the big play, the Buffaloes’ senior running back began to do a little stumping of his own.

Laurel praised his offensive line every chance he got, showcasing a rare ability to evade praise and tacklers.

Finally, there’s a spotlight big enough for the two of them. The Bulletin has decided to award the 2013 All-Area Football Player of the Year award to Sharmoug and Laurel, a block-and-run combo that carried the Buffaloes to a fourth Sac-Joaquin Section title and a berth to the CIF State Northern California Regional Championship.

An entire city followed their journey – from rivals to proud alumni – packing the stands at Lincoln High’s Spanos Stadium as the Buffaloes vied for a State Bowl invitation.

Manteca’s quest literally fell inches short in a 27-21 loss to the Enterprise Hornets, but the loss doesn’t diminish arguably the greatest season in the program’s 90-year history.

“It was a crazy ride, that’s for sure,” Sharmoug said. “It was everything I could have ever hoped for and more. Coming in my freshman year, my ultimate goal was to get a section championship. Just to have all that come together was awesome.”

The Buffaloes leaned on many over the course of a 15-game season, but Sharmoug and Laurel were the most consistent of their top performers.

Sharmoug represented the backbone of Manteca’s power design. The Buffaloes’ offensive and defensive lines set the tone, leaning on the opposition with their overwhelming strength, weight and height.

Manteca racked up nearly 6,000 yards of offense, including 3,960 on the ground, and finished fourth in the state in scoring at 46.7 points per game.

Running through lanes opened up by Sharmoug, Isaac McClain, Tyler Elliott, Valenti Saavedra and Joe Eavenson, Buffalo running backs averaged nearly 7 yards per carry.

The leader of this herd was Sharmoug, a 6-foot-2, 301-pound third-year varsity player. He was one of three captains, an All-Sac-Joaquin Section first-team selection and the keeper of the team’s fabled Shepherd Stick, a responsibility bestowed upon him by former teammate Eddie Smith.

Sharmoug didn’t disappoint the fraternity of Shepherds before him. He is a natural leader, his role as the school’s Senior Class President and Mr. Buff proof positive of that attribute.

“It was a great honor when Eddie gave it to me. I can’t thank him enough,” said Sharmoug, a right guard who also had 36 tackles, six sacks and a team-high five forced fumbles at defensive tackle.”I know he made the right decision and I think my teammates think so, too.”

Laurel said the players counted on Sharmoug’s leadership, whether it was his work ethic in pads or his words in the huddle.

“Not only does he get the job done,” Laurel said, “but he always had something great to say after practice and games. He led us ... he led us to a section championship.

“He comes to work and leads by example the same way every day. It’s never different with him.”

Laurel offered his coaches that same level of comfort and confidence running out of their traditional Power-I.

He rushed for a school record 1,876 yards and totaled 49 touchdowns, second most in the section and fourth on the state’s leader board.

“Greatest season a Manteca running back has ever had,” Sharmoug said. “No disrespect to Andre Patterson, but the No. 1 running back is Alex Laurel. With the numbers he put up, he was awesome.”

Laurel still has trouble believing his place in program history. Patterson, a difference-maker on Manteca’s 2005-06 section championship teams, watched from the sideline as his single-season rushing mark fell during a 49-6 victory over Sacramento in the Division II final.

“Unbelievable to have this type of season. I’ve always said hard work (pays off), but it really paid off this time ... in big numbers it paid off,” Laurel said. “The fact that I had over 1,000 yards rushing and finished top-5 in the state in touchdowns, it gives me hope. It takes my aspiration higher.”

And to think, it started so slow – by Laurel’s standards.

Though he began the season with four touchdowns in a victory over Central Valley at Ceres High, Laurel’s record-setting run didn’t take off until Week 8 at Sierra High.

That night, Laurel helped secure the VOL championship with a 26-carry, 144-yard, four-touchdown performance.

From that point on, Manteca put its fate in Laurel’s hands. After averaging just 11 carries in the first eight games, Laurel saw his average soar to 23 over the final seven. In six of those seven games, he had at least 132 yards.

“When it comes down to it, I’d like to have the ball in my hands. I love my team and I try to live up to that playmaking hype everyone puts on me.”

Individual glory aside, Sharmoug and Laurel long to be remembered for their hardware not highlights.

Shortly after the season ended, Manteca was fitted for its section championship ring.

“An MVP in our league is a pretty good honor. But the numbers and all that, I’m sure somebody will break my records,” Laurel said. “Getting that ring is what really matters.”

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