Young and inexperienced just a few months ago, Manteca came out of its five-game jaunt in the spring feeling optimistic about its chances for what is expected to be a return to a full and normal fall season.
The objective is the same as it was two years ago: “State title,” Lyon Colon said. “That’s pretty much what it is. When I came here last year, I came to win.”
The two-way standout (running back/cornerback) transferred from Valley Oak League rival Central Catholic, which captured four consecutive California Interscholastic Federation titles from 2012-2015 but has not been to a State Bowl since after the Section bumped the Raiders up to the more arduous Division II for the postseason. He wants to help bring the first state trophy to Manteca, a program that made its fourth NorCal Bowl appearance in 2019 and again came up short in the quest to reach a state final.
With only one returning starter from that 2019 squad, the Buffaloes were well tested in the pandemic-shortened spring campaign, getting hard-earned wins against up-and-coming Kimball, reigning Division IV-AA state champ Ripon and SJS Division IV finalists Sierra and Oakdale.
Their Week 5 opponent, cross-town foe East Union, was forced to back out of their annual showdown because of coronavirus health and safety protocol but presented them with a prime opportunity to face Oakland juggernaut McClymonds — the same team that throttled the Buffs 46-13 in their last NorCal appearance. Even with almost an entirely new cast of starting players, Manteca fared better in the rematch and lost 34-14, a deceiving score that included a cosmetic touchdown in the end for the three-time state champion Warriors.
“It was glorified spring ball and we really tried to test ourselves by getting McClymonds in there,” Manteca coach Mark Varnum said. “Obviously, we want to win them all but with the way we battled them in that game really spring boarded us to this fall.”
The step-up in competition could prove beneficial for the youthful Buffs down the road. Alijah Cota is one of three two-way players who started as sophomores in the spring.
“There are a lot of things that we still have to work on as a team, but those five games really did help us,” the hulking 6-foot-2, 235-pound middle linebacker/fullback said. “Our connection kind of grew because we’re still a pretty young team and we have a lot of returners this year. It has helped us transition into this year, and we didn’t have much of a break so we’ve been doing pretty good in practice. Hopefully it translates into the games.”
The Buffaloes had a light final week of spring practices leading up to the Sac-Joaquin Section’s Dead Period that started on Monday. Prior to that, they matched up with the likes of St. Mary’s, Lincoln, Stagg and Liberty in 7-on-7 scrimmages that allowed transfer quarterback Hudson Wyatt to get comfortable with the system. The junior played for Downey’s varsity as an underclassman in the spring. He offers a different skillset than his predecessor Krys Charles, a dynamic playmaker on the run.
“He has come in and picked stuff up pretty quick, so we’re excited to have him,” Varnum said. “With the receivers we have, like Blake (Nicholson), Trey (Moreland) and Zion (Allen), he delivers a good ball and is a good pocket passer. He’s not the athlete Krys (Charles) was but he doesn’t have to be with the athletes we have.”
The Dead Period ends July 26, when teams are allowed to hold its first official practices. Until then, athletes are allowed to continue physical conditioning. Manteca will return to Monterey Trail for a scrimmage on Aug. 13. The Buffaloes have an interesting and challenging pre-league lineup of opponents in Downey, Patterson, Cosmunes Oaks and Turlock.
“We set the bar even higher this year,” Varnum said. “We’ve got the dudes and feel like we can really take it up a notch. They want it and working hard for it. We’ll see how it goes in the fall.”