Menlo-Atherton is not the same team Eric Reis saw last year.
Manteca’s head coach was in attendance at The Corral where Oakdale whooped an inexperienced Bears squad 61-7, but he came away impressed with what he saw from the losing side.
“I was shocked at how athletic they were, and they were real young,” Reis said. “That was just (Adhir Ravipati’s) second game as their head coach, and in talking to him he said, ‘We were not ready for the crowd. We had no clue what it was about.’ It was a turning point for their program.”
Menlo-Atherton lost its first three games in 2015 but went on to seize a share of the Peninsula Athletic League’s Bay Division title, finishing 6-5. The Bears (11-2) are at it again, winning 11 in a row following back-to-back defeats out the gate.
They avenged one of those losses in the Central Coast Section Open Division I semifinals — 21-0 over San Jose powerhouse Bellarmine Prep — and shut down Milpitas 17-0 for the championship.
“Last year we played almost all sophomores and juniors,’’ Ravipati told Palo Alto Online. “I’m so proud of the growth we’ve gone through together. We hit rock bottom and then built ourselves back up.”
They’ve ascended from rock bottom to staring at the peak of greatness. On Friday, Ravipati and the Bears will host Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV champion Manteca (12-1) in the CIF State Division III-AA Northern California Regional Bowl Game.
Menlo-Atherton returns almost 20 starters from last year’s team, several of them with NCAA Division I scholarship offers.
Running back Jordan Mims — with offers from Idaho, Eastern Washington, San Jose State — stars in the prolific pistol-spread offense. He has rushed for 1,981 yards (nearly 10 per carry) and 24 touchdowns.
Quarterback Aajon Johnson is just as dangerous in the option offense. He has thrown for 1,901 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions but also has 961 yards and 14 scores rushing.
Paving the way are gargantuan linemen such as 5-foot-11, 300-pound guard Epili Mataele, sophomore Noa Ngalu (6-2, 250) and Ben Makoni (6-3, 305).
“Unlike a lot of teams that like to formation you to death they just run their stuff and they do it pretty well,” Reis said. “When it looks like a team has them bottled up all it takes is one play to get them going. It’s a unique challenge because of their quarterback. He has the ability to throw but is so slippery.”
As explosive as the offense has been, averaging 38.8 points per game, the defense is grabbing the headlines coming off the successive shutouts. The win over Bellarmine was a huge turnaround from Menlo-Atherton’s 34-20 season-opening loss to the Bells.
The defense is anchored by 5-11, 215-pound middle linebacker Stavro Papadakis (117 tackles, 10 sacks), also a starting running back, 6-4, 230-pound linebacker Christian Wiseman (158 tackles, 6.5 sacks), cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (six picks, 21 pass deflections) and Ngalu (99 tackles, 5.5 sacks).
“They mix up their looks on defense depending on what you’re going to do on offense,” Reis said. “We’re perceived to be a running team but I’m sure they see us throwing it on film, so we have to be ready for any defense they throw out there.”
Manteca aims to make history with a first NorCal Bowl win on its second try. In 2013 the Buffaloes lost to Enterprise of Redding in the NorCal Division II Bowl. A victory would match them with the winner of the SoCal Division III-AA Bowl Game between Paraclete (10-4) of Lancaster and Mater Dei Catholic (12-1) of Chula Vista.