STOCKTON — In an entertaining game that featured momentum-swinging plays between evenly-matched teams, it will be one moment of controversy that will haunt Manteca High and its fans.
Enterprise of Redding prevailed 27-21 in the CIF Division II Regional Championship Bowl Game at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Saturday, taking advantage of glaring mistakes made by a Buffalo squad that had otherwise played near-perfect in its postseason run.
Of Manteca’s four turnovers, however, one in particular will be held under a microscope.
The Buffaloes (13-2) were trailing 27-21 but appeared to be on their way to taking the lead with about 10:30 remaining.
It was second-and-5 from the Enterprise 9. Alex Laurel took the handoff from Joe Menzel and was met by Hornet defenders near the line of scrimmage. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound dynamo broke through and stumbled at around the 5-yard line.
Laurel put his free hand on the turf and kept enough of his balance to keep his legs churning with no one between himself and the end zone. He dove toward the goal line, right arm fully stretched out with ball in hand.
But the ball was no longer in his hand as he hit the turf and it rolled through the back of the end zone.
After a brief conference, the officials ruled it a touchback.
“In my opinion, it was a blown call,” said Laurel, who totaled 167 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in his final high school contest. “One ref signaling touchdown, the others confused as to what happened.
“I was definitely over the goal line when the ball popped out. I hit the ground; my knees were down.”
Manteca still had opportunities to win. Enterprise’s ensuing drive was cut short when Manteca lineman Chris Aranda recovered a fumble on the Hornets’ 39.
The Buffaloes gave it right back on the next play, as Justin Abney — the receiver who fumbled just moments prior — picked off a pass intended for Nick Gatehouse at the 21.
Manteca’s defense came through again, forcing a three-and-out series and starting its final drive on its own 31. It ended on the Enterprise 36, as the Buffaloes’ final offensive play of the season was an underthrown ball to a well-covered Brandon Dabney on fourth-and-13.
“You have to hand it to them,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said. “They are a very physical football team. They’re very good; we just made a few too many mistakes to be able to pull it off.”
Enterprise (13-0) indeed deserves credit as it travels even farther south next Saturday to take on powerful Chaminade (West Hills) for the Division II state title at Carson’s StubHub Center. The Hornets were down 14-0 after the first quarter and shut out Manteca’s potent offense in the second half.
“That team was putting up 40 to 50 points a game, and 60 to 70 against some teams,” Enterprise coach Darren Trueblood. “To shut them down in the second half was just a tremendous effort by our coaching staff and our kids. They never lost their belief. They just keep winning.”
Things were looking bleak for Enterprise in the early going, as it ran just six offensive plays in the opening period. Manteca dominated the quarter, using 24 plays to take its two-score advantage on short-yardage runs from Laurel and Menzel.
Fleet-footed Izzy Perea gave the Hornets life with a 68-yard kickoff return, and they ended up scoring three unanswered touchdowns in a 4 minute, 11-second span.
“That put us right back in the ball game,” Trueblood said. “Once we tied it up our kids figured out that they could play on this stage. Once they realized that they would not be denied.”
Isaiah Matthews (32 rushes, 166 yards, 2 TDs) punched in Enterprise’s first points with a 3-yard scamper with 11:31 left in the half. On Manteca’s third play of the following drive, Matthews recovered Michael Gonzalez’s fumble and ran it back to the Buffalo 32.
Quarterback Bobby Luken later knotted the score with a 4-yard run, and momentum was fully on the Hornets’ side when Jace O’Ravez — would later provide Enterprise with the deciding touchdown on the team’s second-half opening drive — recovered Sheldon Highfill’s squib kick.
Matthews’ 1-yard score gave them their first lead with 7:20 to go in the second.
Manteca did well to weather the storm, answering with a scoring drive capped off by Laurel’s third-down, fingertips catch spanning 42 yards up the middle.
Unfortunately for the Buffs, the ball didn’t stay in his grasp long enough on the would-be touchdown.
“What do you do? I mean, it’s not the NFL,” Reis said. “I wanted to throw my red flag out there and check it. (Laurel) is a pretty (honest) guy and he swore up and down that he was in. But that’s football.”