Stricken by injuries and illnesses Friday, Manteca gutted out a 39-35 win over No. 5-seeded Vista del Lago and advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals.
The back-and-forth affair came down to Angel Garay’s late 12-yard touchdown and an interception in the end zone by Isaac Searcy on the final play. Garay co-starred with Trabron Russell in the backfield, as both eclipsed the 100-yard mark.
It had been weeks since the No. 4 Buffaloes (9-2), coming off a first-round bye, were last tested, and coach Mark Varnum believes that their two heartbreaking setbacks this season — a 54-48 overtime loss at Downey and 27-26 loss to fellow Valley Oak League co-champion Central Catholic — prepared them for the latest barnburner at Guss Schmiedt Field.
They expect another challenge next week against reigning champion and top-seeded Capital Christian in Sacramento. Capital fended off No. 9 Antelope, 27-17.
“We’ve been through some wars this year,” Varnum said. “I think we kind of kept that game closer than it needed to be with a lot of mistakes we made. Maybe that’s the week off; it’ll do it to you. That’s a good team, they did a lot of good things, but I’m just happy that we competed in the end and we were able to finish.”
On third-and-9, Garay pushed the Buffs ahead for good on an inside trap play with 36 seconds remaining. He redeemed himself for fumbling in the red zone on their previous drive as they looked to take two-score lead with about 8 minutes to go.
“My gloves were real sweaty and it just slipped, so I played the rest of the game without them,” Garay said.
Kevin Thornburg followed with an important point-after kick — his first attempt in six weeks as he has had trouble recovering from a groin injury. Manteca twice failed on two-point conversion runs and missed a PAT in the first half, so Varnum did not hesitate to send in the reliable Thornburg.
“We’ve had a run of kicker injuries so it has been by committee,” Varnum said. “Thorny is a senior with experience and we said we needed this. He went in and drilled it.”
It was far from over, considering the quick-strike ability Vista displayed earlier in the contest.
The Eagles (9-3) from Folsom started their final series on the 25, and it didn’t take long for them to move downfield. Nik Goodwin (19 of 30, 350 yards, three TDs; TD run) completed three passes to Mitchell Northcutt (six receptions, 107 yards) for gains of 17, 16 and 27 yards, setting up the deciding play from the Manteca 15.
Following a timeout with 2 seconds to go, Goodwin looked for 6-foot-2 wide out Zach Corbitt — his top pass catcher of the season who was limited to a single catch for 8 yards Friday — in the end zone. Manteca defensive backs Quincy Robinson and Searcy leaped in front of the intended target, and it was the latter who came down with the ball.
Searcy returned it past the 20 before getting tackled by teammates Garren Genilla and Jacob DeJesus.
“I knew they were running a lot across the middle, like curl routes,” Searcy said. “Coach (Rick) James just told us be ready for it and as soon as it went up I knew it was mine.”
On the ill-advised run-back, he said, “Once I could feel all my teammates grabbing me I knew I should have gone down a long time ago.”
It was the only turnover forced by the defense, which was burned by big plays throughout. Vista del Lago had two one-play drives — Goodwin’s 62- and 64-yard throws to Erik Johnson (four receptions, 125 yards) and standout running back Ryan Menezes in the first half.
The Buffaloes did well to bottle up Menezes, for the most part — he finished with 145 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries but needed big runs of 44, 53 and 34 yards to get there.
“Defense played pretty well, it was just three or four plays — that’s why it was close,” Varnum said. “Same thing offensively; we could have finished it at the end and we turned it over with a few minutes left on the clock, that’s always brutal.
“A few things we have to clean up, obviously, moving forward. It’s like I told the kids, it’s all about surviving and advancing and we’re one stop closer.”
Russell was among the ailing Buffaloes, but he managed to rush for 174 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts before heading to the locker room midway through the fourth quarter. Heir apparent Aiden Nichols (eight rushes, 32 yards) filled in admirably, while the 6-1, 215-pound Garay continued to pound away for 110 yards and two touchdowns on 12 scampers.
Manteca was able to balance its attack as it outgained the Eagles, 520-498. Quarterback Ryan Ward was 12 of 23 for 153 yards and three touchdowns. Even receiver Jacob DeJesus (seven catches, 90 yards, two TDs) completed a 50-yard toss to Dy’lon Valentine on a key third-and-16 play that led to Garay’s 15-yard touchdown that gave Manteca a 25-21 lead early in the second half. Sunny Dozier contributed four receptions, 59 yards and a touchdown, but it was the power running that led the way.
Manteca did it without offensive guard Jacob Sanchez and tight end/pass rusher Marc Buenrostro, who are both out with knee injuries.
“That’s who we are, we’re Manteca,” Varnum said. “We’re power-I football, ground and pound. We’re just blessed to have a guy like Ryan throwing it and receivers like Sunny, Dy’lon and Jacob that keep people offense. When we’re clicking on both sides we’re hard to contend with.”
Vista del Lago 7 14 0 14 — 35
Manteca 12 6 7 14 — 39
M—Jacob DeJesus 25 pass from Ryan Ward (run failed), 8:40.
V—Erik Johnson 62 pass from Nik Goodwin (Carter King kick), 8:25.
M—Sunny Dozier 17 pass from Ward (run failed), 3:19.
M—Trabron Russell 8 run (kick failed), 5:12.
V—Ethan Menezes 63 pass from Goodwin (Carter kick), 4:59.
V—Goodwin 3 run (Carter kick), 0:18.
M—Angel Garay 15 run (Alejandro Tornero kick), 10:47.
M—DeJesus 16 pass from Ward (Tornero kick), 11:54.
V—Menezes 34 run (pass failed), 9:04.
V—Jayden Dias 9 pass from Goodwin (Zach Corbitt pass from Goodwin), 4:20.
M—Garay 12 run (Kevin Thornburg kick), 0:36.