There will be a hint of sadness and nostalgia amid all the excitement of Manteca and Sonora’s Valley Oak League opener tonight.
Together, the Buffaloes and Wildcats have helped elevate the VOL into one of the most revered football leagues in the Sac-Joaquin Section.
That will never change.
However, their playing arrangement will.
Tonight, the longtime combatants meet for the final time as Valley Oak League members.
Sonora will join the likes of Calaveras and Amador in the Mother Lode League next fall, ending a partnership with the VOL that dates back to 1947. The Wildcats were moved to the MLL by the section’s realignment committee because of a declining enrollment.
The numbers are telling. Sonora High has nearly 500 fewer students than Manteca High. Each is a charter member of the VOL.
The ‘Cats will be replaced by Central Catholic, another storied football program and a 2012 CIF State Bowl champion.
“It’s a bummer, for sure,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said of Sonora’s departure. “It seems weird ... very strange. Obviously, as long as I’ve been around, playing and coaching, (Sonora) has been a special place to play.”
The Wildcats leave behind a tradition of winning, hit-you-hard defense and a power running game – “The DNA of the Valley Oak League,” says Reis. Sonora has won 147 VOL titles in all sports, including 10 football championships.
In 2005, in one of the more exciting football finishes in recent memory, Sonora shared the VOL title with Manteca and Weston Ranch.
The Wildcats topped a talent-rich Buffaloes team – a roster that featured University of Arizona-bound Mike Turner and current Weston Ranch coach Seth Davis – during the regular season, 31-28.
Seven weeks later, Manteca avenged its only loss with a 34-7 whipping in the Division III final at the University of the Pacific. It was the first of back-of-back section titles for the Buffaloes, who have won eight straight in this rivalry.
“They say Manteca’s rival is East Union. For us, our rivalry that year was Sonora,” said Davis, the Buffaloes’ top tackler in 2005. “The hype for that game just built up.”
The hype, Reis says, is warranted each and every time these two tangle.
No matter their records.
The Buffaloes (2-1) are off to an impressive start, sandwiching blowout wins over Central Valley and Los Banos around an overtime loss to undefeated Wilcox of Santa Clara.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats limp in 0-3 with losses to Turlock, Paradise of the North Section and Calaveras, each a traditionally tough out.
Sonora was doomed by a rash of turnovers in a 13-7 loss to Calaveras last week.
“They’re always good,” said Reis, who spent his bye week scouting the Wildcats. “They play Sonora football. They always come at you.
“We realize they’re 0-0 and we’re 0-0. Preseason doesn’t matter for nothing. We’re throwing out the records. This is the last time we’ll play them for a long time. It makes it special in that regard.”
Just in case, Reis has reminded his locker room of the 2005 team, which strutted into Dunleavy Field 5-0 and left saddled with a 31-28 loss.
“It’s in the back of our minds,” said Manteca senior offensive lineman Billy Sharmoug, whose brother, Gus, played on the 2005 squad. “Me and some of the other guys have grown up around the program and watched some of these battles. Knowing this is the last time we’ll play Sonora in the VOL, it is meaningful. We know they’ll have some extra motivation.”
If history holds true, tonight’s game will be an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
The Buffaloes escaped Sonora with 27-20 victory last season. Alex Laurel hauled in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Joe Menzel with less than 30 seconds left.
The loss loomed large for the Wildcats, who missed the playoffs at 4-6 and lost four games by eight points or less.
In 2011, Manteca won 34-32.
“I’m sure they’ve circled this game on their calendar. I think they always do,” Reis said. “It’s an old-school tradition of playing each other. It’s the VOL. It’s a league game and we all want to win a championship.”
The excitement and pursuit will be tempered by another force at play:
Sonora’s farewell tour officially begins tonight. The Wildcats will travel to Guss Schmiedt Field with their legendary band, The Golden Regiment.
“We are leaving a great league,” Sonora athletic director Rick Francis said. “The VOL is considered one of the finest leagues within the Sac-Joaquin Section. Having been in the VOL for 77 years, it sure will seem strange not going down Highway 108 to play the valley schools.
“Nothing but fond memories.”