Angel Garay was one of the three super sophomores Eric Reis had elevated to the varsity football team in his 16th and final year as Manteca High's all-time winningest coach.
Wide receiver Jacob DeJesus and running back Trabron Russell were immediate contributors, then they took over as the cornerstones of the Buffaloes attack for new head coach Mark Varnum.
Garay, the most physically imposing of the three, mostly watched from the sidelines in 2017 and wasn't even part of the team last year.
“Honestly, I was not trying,” Garay said. “I just didn't have the motivation. I wish I could go back and give it 100 percent to be the best player I could be.”
Look at him now.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound fullback/outside linebacker is a big reason why the Buffaloes (11-2) are making their fourth CIF State Northern California Regional Bowl Game appearance in seven years on Saturday. The seven-time Sac-Joaquin Section titlists will travel to Oakland to take on three-time reigning state champion McClymonds (10-0) in the Division II-A contest.
Garay was dismissed from the team before the start of his junior season but has since made a drastic turnaround in every way.
“He just made some bad decisions,” Varnum said Saturday night after Manteca's 33-14 win over Placer in the SJS Division III final at Sacramento City College. “He has matured so much and done everything right. When I talked to him about letting him back on the team he thanked me and promised he'd help us win the whole thing. He looks like a prophet tonight.”
Garay has delivered on both sides of scrimmage. Mainly used on defense for the first half of the season, Varnum decided it was time to unleash him during a pivotal Valley Oak League game at Oakdale.
Garay was inserted at fullback and paved the way for Russell's 240-yard explosion that included a new program record seven touchdowns. The Buffaloes left “The Corral,” where they've had little success over the years, with a 55-37 win.
“The second half of that Oakdale game was when our season turned around, and that's when we got him going and more involved in the offense,” Varnum said. “He's just been a workhorse for us.”
Three weeks later, at rival Sierra, Garay was unleashed as ball carrier. He bulldozed his way to 67 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries — all season-highs at the time — as Manteca rolled, 42-12.
Garay continued to ratchet up his play as the Buffaloes entered the postseason. On Nov. 15, he starred in Manteca's hard-earned 39-35 quarterfinal win against Vista del Lago, churning out 101 yards and two touchdowns with an ill-stricken Russell leaving the game early in the fourth quarter.
Then in Manteca's 20-14 upset at top-seeded Capital Christian, he intercepted two passes and broke a 44-yard run on a night when the offense struggled.
On Saturday, Garay stepped up yet again under the bright lights of historic Hughes Stadium. Although limited in his carries (five for 11 yards), he and fellow fullback Evans Nicholas helped Russell amass 205 yards and four touchdowns.
But it was on defense that Garay came through for the biggest play of night — an 87-yard pick-six that gave Manteca some needed breathing room, 26-14, against a physical Placer team that was able to sustain long drives with its Wing-T up to that point. It was part of a backbreaking 20-point onslaught that secured the Buffaloes' third section banner in four years.
Varnum compares Garay's postseason breakout to former star quarterback Gino Campiotti's in 2017. In four SJS games, Campiotti completed 68 of 96 passes (70.8%) for 1,011 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions while rushing for five touchdowns in back-to-back rounds.
“The playoff run that Angel has had has been amazing,” Varnum said. “It's reminiscent of what Gino did a couple of years ago, absolutely taking over. That pick was the swing, the momentum turner right there.”
Garay is thankful for the chance to finally showcase his abilities, which runs in the family. His cousin, Enrique Jasso, was a standout defensive lineman for Sierra's 2015 state championship team.
“It feels amazing,” Garay said. “I wish I could have been part of the team last year. It's a blessing, man. I have to thank God and my family, they're the reason why I'm here.”