It’s Halloween, and the spookiest holiday of the year has given football fans a real treat: defending Valley Oak League champion Manteca versus unbeaten Sierra, with more than just bragging rights at stake.
Both carry remarkable streaks into the game.
The Timberwolves are 8-0 for the first time ever and can clinch a share of the program’s second championship in 19 varsity seasons with a win.
If Sierra feels like a team on verge of something special, it’s because it is: the Timberwolves have won impressively with sophomores and juniors playing key roles on both sides of the ball, suggesting this season may be a precursor to even greater things.
At 3-2 in league, Manteca is looking to avoid its first three-loss campaign since 2003, head coach Eric Reis’ second year with the program.
More importantly, the Buffaloes need the momentum of a big win going into the playoffs, where they are the reigning Division III champion and a regional bowl finalist.
The “big game” ledger doesn’t look favorably on Manteca. That Buffaloes are 0-2 against Central Catholic and Oakdale, while Sierra is 2-0 against the same competition.
Now, without further ado, here are the five players that could impact those streaks:
The 5-foot-9, 159-pound senior carries the Shepherd’s Stick, making him the hand-picked leader of the Buffaloes, but he’ll need to bring the “Whooping Stick” to the Schmiedt on Friday night. Pisano, a center fielder in the spring, will be instrumental in keeping Sierra’s vaunted run game from hitting the proverbial home run. When the linemen and linebackers are neutralized, Pisano and fellow safety Marcus Rivas must fill the gaps. If Sierra running backs Mark Paule Jr. (1,517 yards, 31 total touchdowns) or Marcos Castillo are there, the safeties can’t afford to miss the tackle because there’s likely to be nothing but green grass behind them. Pisano (team-high 52 tackles) struggled with that at times against Central Catholic and Oakdale, Manteca’s only two losses of the season. We think he’ll play at an all-star level tonight.
ANDREW GUEVARA, Sierra defensive lineman
For all their offensive exploits, the Timberwolves have established an identity as a defensive team that flies to the ball. While others have garnered headlines, Guevara has emerged as one of the area’s top pass rushers and a leader with that unit. His seven sacks (in six reported games) are tops on the team, according to MaxPreps, and he has 16 tackles and one forced fumble. The target on Friday will be his toughest yet. Quarterback Dakarai Charles is dangerous with his arm and feet. He can keep plays alive, dodging and darting defenders, and turn a busted play into a beautiful one. Sierra showed it can be susceptible to run-and-gun QBs; East Union sophomore Jack Weaver had some success last week. If Guevara can get his hands on Charles early or force him into a few bad decisions (think: rushed or errant passes), it may rattle the first-year starter beyond recovery.
RONALDO TIJERO, Manteca WR/cornerback
I bet you’re wondering why I picked a Manteca wide receiver when the Buffaloes have rushed for nearly 70 percent of their total yards. It’s simple. While Manteca hasn’t shown a propensity to throw, when it has Charles has often targeted Tijero, an impressive 5-foot, 11-inch junior. Tijero leads the team in catches (17), yards (247) and touchdowns with five. In fact, he’s found the end zone in three of the last four games and was instrumental in a comeback against Central Catholic. In that game, he had three receptions for 56 yards, including a 36-yard, over-the-shoulder catch against the boundary. The Buffaloes will need to keep Sierra honest with the pass and Charles has plenty of options through the air: sure-handed tight-end Greg Jones; Luis Reyes, arguably the fastest of the bunch; and Pisano. But we like Tijero’s hands, body control and nose for the end zone.
MARCOS CASTILLO, Sierra athlete
This super sophomore can and will play a multitude of positions. He’s everywhere. Try to keep up: We’ve seen Castillo kick field goals, punt, fake the punt, return an interception for a touchdown, rush for a touchdown, rush the passer, line up behind center and catch a pass. The 15-year-old has become Sierra’s Swiss Army Knife and we believe he can be the perfect weapon on Friday night. For starters, Castillo should be well rested. He appeared to be wearing down in a victory over Oakdale two weeks ago – he was spotted getting treatment for what appeared to be leg cramps – and sat out a 35-21 victory over East Union last Friday. Plus, this is Manteca – an opponent he gashed with one good leg last fall. Castillo rushed for 110 yards on just 10 carries and scored the game-winning TD on a 62-yard gallop with less than 3 minutes left. Granted it was a freshman football game, but there was a VOL title on the line ... and did I mention he had just one good leg?
Rain is in the forecast, which only heightens the mood for this bitter Valley Oak League rivalry. The wet stuff should fall throughout the afternoon and continue right through the varsity kickoff, which doesn’t bode well for the natural surface at Gus Schmiedt Field. The rain, coupled with the action from the sophomore game, could make for soupy conditions come 7 o’clock. So who has the advantage? Who’s better suited to play in the rain? Naturally, both coaches are confident their systems and schemes are water-proof, but Mother Nature may ultimately be the biggest player on Friday. Rain can affect the grip on the ball, which may lead to momentum-swinging turnovers. It can also affect footing, which could be problematic for defenders and ball carriers and kickers alike. Here’s a wild card: If rain keeps fans and bands at home, and this game is played in a virtual vacuum, who then?