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Big games ahead for area contenders
Manteca High running back Eddie Smith tries to break a tackle during the Buffaloes 2011 Valley Oak League contest against visiting Sonora. - photo by HIME ROMERO

East Union (1-5) at Oakdale (5-1): The Lancers’ closing stretch — Oakdale, Kimball, Sonora, Manteca — is the toughest among area teams, but they appear to have plenty of fight left (45-13, Oakdale).

Manteca (3-3) at Sonora (3-3): Sonora has a big home-field advantage, and its punishing run game could give the Buffs problems. Manteca has done its best work on the road, however (35-26, Manteca).

Sierra (5-1) at Kimball (2-4): A possible trap game for Sierra following its big victory at Manteca. Kimball proved its worth with last week’s commanding win over Sonora (42-32, Sierra).

Lathrop (0-6) at Weston Ranch (3-3): The Ranch beat EU last week with several starters out for disciplinary reasons. Next is Lathrop, a team due to put it all together, for homecoming (16-10, Weston Ranch).

Hilmar (6-1) at Ripon (7-0): Ripon has had spotty moments that turned big leads into close wins against quality opponents. Up next: The reigning SJS Division IV champion (35-22, Ripon).

Delhi (1-5) at Ripon Christian (5-1): The Knights should win handily, so the main objective on Saturday is to stay healthy for Week 8 and 10 battles with Waterford and Le Grand (45-13, RC).

Last week: 4-1 (33-3 overall).

Manteca faces a must-win situation in Sonora on Friday, when the Buffaloes tangle with a squad just as desperate for a victory.

Sierra squares off with a dangerous and confident Kimball squad.

Weston Ranch hosts nearby rival Lathrop for homecoming with a postseason berth still within reach.

And Ripon can put itself in the driver’s seat for a league title with a victory over the defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV champion.

It’s a big week for area squads still in the hunt.

In the Valley Oak League, Manteca (2-1, 3-3) and Sonora (2-1, 3-3) are coming off tough losses that make their meeting that much more meaningful. Manteca took a 35-26 loss to rival Sierra last week, while Sonora was on the wrong end of a 43-26 stunner at Kimball, a common opponent for both squads. The Buffaloes defeated Kimball 42-25 in the VOL opener.

Sonora poses problems with its physical triple option offense that brings back all three running backs from 2011, including 6-foot, 220-pound standout Brandon Camara.

The Buffaloes have allowed three rushers to run for over 200 yards, one being Kimball QB Zack Johnson. That is who Sierra (2-1, 5-1) will look to corral Friday night. Johnson is a dynamic signal caller who throws with power and accuracy and runs with elusiveness. Kimball (1-2, 2-4) has other weapons, such as hard-running back Evan Owens, to make its spread offense tough to stop.

The Jaguars will key on Sierra’s Anthony Cota, who rushed for 222 yards and five touchdowns against Manteca. Cota ranks second in the SJS and sixth in the state with 22 touchdown scampers, according to

Kimball wraps up a tough stretch to start the VOL having on Friday already squared off with Manteca, Oakdale and Sonora. A win puts the Jaguars in position to reach the SJS playoffs for the first time.

Weston Ranch (1-2, 3-3) is still in the running for a postseason berth but ends the regular season against Oakdale, Kimball and Sierra. First the Cougars must get past a hungry Lathrop squad in search of its first win of the season. They produced a big win last week at East Union with several starters benched for disciplinary reasons.

In the Trans-Valley League, Ripon (3-0, 7-0) plays Hilmar (2-1, 6-1), which lost a lot of talent from its 2011 section championship team but is led by a junior class that captured the TVL title at the sophomore level.

The Yellowjackets’ lone loss, 32-21, came to Modesto Christian, a team Ripon soundly defeated, 52-0. That doesn’t mean the Indians are looking past them, however. They held on to beat Hughson 35-27 last week after leading 21-0 late in the second quarter. In the conference opener, Ripon led defending TVL champ Escalon 28-7 in the fourth quarter before giving up the lead and ultimately winning in thrilling fashion, 34-28.

The coaching staff has found reasons to nitpick what has been a magical season for Ripon, which hasn’t earned a conference title since 1996 (Southern League). A win Friday gives the Indians a great chance at ending the drought with last-place Riverbank up next.