Isaac McClain and Billy Sharmoug led Manteca out of the locker room and through a banner that read “Roll on you Buffs” — the team’s rallying cry on first-down conversions.
It was on the backs of these two monstrosities and the three others to the right of them that the Buffaloes rode to a 21-7 halftime lead and the outright Valley Oak League championship at Sierra’s Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.
“That’s the foundation of our team, is up front on both sides of the ball,” Manteca offensive coordinator Neil MacDannald said following the 35-14 victory. “We’ll go as far as they can take us.”
Manteca’s offense struggled to start as Sierra came at quarterback Joe Menzel and the running backs with stunting defensive. The Buffaloes tried rolling Menzel out to both sidelines on passing plays. They went with sweeps and tosses to the outside, but Sierra’s outstanding front had those plays covered.
The Timberwolves owned the trenches in the first quarter and led 7-0. Defensive ends Aaron Thiel and DeVonte Reese were wreaking havoc, as were Adam Bettencourt and 6-foot-3, 305-pound sophomore Josh Fala in the middle.
“You gotta take your hat off to Sierra, they did a great job defensively on us,” MacDannald said. “Their game plan was really solid, which goes to show you how special this group is. These guys made adjustments and they overcame.”
Manteca answered with a 7-minute, 57-second drive punctuated by Alex Laurel’s third-and-goal touchdown run up the middle from 5 yards out. Before that, Laurel converted on fourth-and-3 with another 5-yard scamper between the tackles.
It was on this drive that Manteca’s beefy front realized that it was wearing down Sierra’s defense.
“The coaches have a lot of confidence in us,” McClain said. “Power left — that’s what we do. Everybody in the stadium knows where the ball is going and they still couldn’t stop it.”
Manteca got the ball right back just two plays later when Lechi Nkwocha recovered a fumble on the 22. Sensing the momentum shift, MacDannald called for a halfback in the end zone. Dominic Pisano hit his target but the ball was drop.
On the next play, Menzel turned and handed it off to Laurel (25 carries, 162 yards, four touchdowns) for a 22-yard score up the middle.
Later, after yet another Sierra turnover, Laurel struck again on third-and-16 with a 31-yard draw. In the second quarter alone, Manteca ran 20 offensive plays while Sierra was limited to five.
“The coaches have a lot of confidence in us and at the same time they do a good job of calling the right plays,” McClain said. “The running backs trust that the holes are going to be there, and we trust that the running backs will do their thing.”
That they did. Manteca piled 276 rushing yards. Sierra’s high-flying spread offense was limited to just 207 total.
McClain and Sharmoug didn’t do it alone. There’s 6-5, 312 right tackle Joe Eavenson and 6-3, 229-pound guard Tyler Elliot next to him. In the middle is “tiny” Valenti Saavedra, who is dwarfed by his linemates at 5-10, 228.
“Me and Isaac get all the love, but I think Eavenson and Tyler are just as good as us if not better,” Sharmoug said. “Joe has got some of the best footwork I have ever seen, and Tyler is one of the hardest working players on our team. ‘V’ is the underdog who is undersized in the middle but he brings it every week.”
McClain and Sharmoug also did it on defense. Manteca defensive coordinator Rick James went away from the usual 3-4 front to add more players on the back end to cover Sierra’s prolific passing game.
This, again, is where trust in the linemen come into play. With linebackers Jacob LeDon and Nkwocha to the outside of them, McClain and Sharmoug started the game as the Buffaloes’ only defensive linemen. And on the first play, Sharmoug brought down Sierra QB Jake Pruitt for the first of his two sacks. Chris Aranda and Steven Martinez rotated in throughout, and they helped stuff the Sierra run game with tackles for losses.
“We feel that we can get across anybody that they put against us and I think for the most part tonight we did,” Sharmoug said. “I’m really proud of all the guys. They really stepped up. We couldn’t do it without those guys. We’re a unit.”