Down to their final play, Dakarai Charles threw toward the corner of the end zone with confidence.
There, he spied his favorite target and birthday boy, Ronaldo Tijero. The slick, sure-handed junior leapt high for the ball, cradling it behind his body with one hand before crashing to the ground.
Did he have control?
Buffalo fans will have months to debate the call. Officials ruled the pass incomplete, sealing a wildly entertaining, hard-hitting 34-28 victory for No. 5 Sacramento in a rematch of the 2013 Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final.
Beaten handily in their first appearance in a section football championship, the Dragons (10-2) never trailed in exacting revenge against the fourth-seeded Buffaloes (9-3).
Quarterback Caden Voges anchored a quick-strike offense that never allowed Manteca to gain momentum.
Voges threw for 316 yards and four touchdowns, and though he was inefficient (9-of-24 passing), the 6-foot junior did not throw an interception.
In their first meeting, Voges was picked off twice and sacked five times. On Friday, Sacramento kept their quarterback upright – and their season alive.
Wide receiver Talik Ellis (four catches, 160 yards) reeled in two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score on an 89-pass play with 4:15 left in the game.
The scoring sequence came just four plays after Manteca tied the game at 28 on a 34-yard reception by Greg Jones. Ellis sped past the Buffalo secondary and into space, where the ball was waiting.
“It was really sloppy for us, which is not uncommon,” Sacramento coach Paul Doherty said of his team’s execution. “We’ve been sloppy all year, but we do have good players who can make big plays when we get the ball in their hands. They showed up today and it was enough, but it won’t be enough to keep going.”
The Manteca crowd – a sea of players, coaches and fans – gathered under the scoreboard following the game. There were tears and muted expressions in all directions, and one common culprit.
The Buffaloes had surged into this quarterfinal on a five-game winning streak, and head coach Eric Reis believed his team was playing its best brand of football.
They hardly looked the part on Friday, committing three turnovers – one of which was an interception at the Sacramento goal line – and 10 penalties.
The Buffaloes’ final drive was indicative of their uneven performance all evening.
“Too many penalties on that last drive. We shot ourselves in the foot and couldn’t recover from that,” Reis said. “… We had a chance to seize it and we didn’t.”
Charles positioned the team with a 17-yard scramble and 15-yard pass to Jones. A 5-yard run by Lechi Nkwocha moved the ball inside the red zone with 2:08 remaining.
“We couldn’t knock them out when we had our chances,” Reis said.
Back-to-back holding penalties left the Buffaloes with a third-and-21 from the 35. Charles took two fruitless stabs at the end zone. He finished with 133 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.
A fourth, he’s certain, was taken away from Tijero and the Buffaloes.
“I’m confident in Ronaldo. All season long we’ve been building this connection,” Charles said. “There have been a couple times I’ve thrown the ball in the end zone and he’s caught it.”
Did he snag that last-ditch throw, too?
“Oh yeah,” Charles added. “I think he caught it.”
Sacramento dictated the tempo in the first half, unnerving the Buffaloes who were flagged for two personal fouls and fumbled twice in the game’s first five minutes.
With Manteca seemingly distracted, Voges and the Dragons’ offense went to work building a 21-7 lead.
Voges flipped a pass into the flat for Kyron Basped, a San Jose State commit. Basped turned the corner on Manteca defensive Luis Reyes and sprinted untouched into the end zone.
Later in the second quarter, after a flag-filled drive by Manteca ended in a punt, Voges dipped into the playbook for a home run ball. He lofted a pass deep down the sideline for Willshawn Menefee, who strode past Tijero for a 60-yard touchdown.
Manteca cut the deficit to 21-14 on the next possession, relying on a few trick plays to move the ball into Dragon territory.
Punter Marcus Montano, faking a rugby style kick, kept the ball for a 12-yard gain. He was launched into the bench area after stepping out of bounds, tacking on an additional 15 yards.
The Buffaloes followed that play with a halfback pass with Hector Soto, who targeted Reyes in the seam. The speedy wideout was mugged by two Dragon defenders.
The pass interference call set up Charles’ 19-yard scramble – the first of two rushing touchdowns.
The QB with running back roots stepped into the second level, cut back against the defense and then outraced everyone to the opposite pylon to pull Manteca within seven at the half.
“He came up with big runs and put us into big throws,” Reis said. “This will sting him heavily, like the rest of us. They will give him the fuel for next year.”