Hunched over, Eric Reis pulled two of his strongest linemen out of the crowd and pointed to his back.
Isaac McClain and Billy Sharmoug were happy to play along.
“Get this monkey off my back,” the Manteca High coach said to round of cheers. “It’s a big one, too.”
The second-seeded Buffaloes finally won a playoff game, snapping a six-year drought with a wild 69-55 victory over No. 15 Central Valley on Friday evening.
Alex Laurel rushed for 256 yards and four touchdowns and Manteca’s porous defense sealed the team’s first postseason victory since 2007 with a score of its own.
Make no mistake about it, though: This one was in doubt well into the fourth quarter.
Ja’Quan Gardner and Kendel Johnson gave Central Valley (6-5), a first-time qualifier, a puncher’s chance.
The running back-quarterback duo combined for 587 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns, forcing Manteca into an offensive shootout.
The Buffaloes (10-1) had just enough bullets in their gun
“It feels good to finally get a playoff win,” said Sharmoug, a cast member in the last two first-round exits.
Manteca had lost four consecutive first-round games, including three at venerable Guss Schmiedt Field. Its last playoff victory was a 35-15 decision over Foothill in 2007.
“What a huge win,” Reis said. “We finally got this one. … It’s a good day to be a Buffalo.”
Clarification: It’s a good day to be a Buffalo offensive player. Friday’s performance will haunt the defense through the weekend.
Gardner rushed for 373 yards on 35 carries and accounted for five touchdowns – four on the ground and one through the air.
“We’d make one mistake and he was gone,” Sharmoug said. “He’s a special player; one of the best I’ve ever played against.”
Gardner’s 4-yard jump pass to Christian Romo made it 62-55 with 8 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the game.
There was hope yet for Central Valley, which trailed by 20 midway through the third quarter.
“We were up by three TDs and we thought it was over,” Reis said. “What a crazy, crazy game. We knew they were super good. We saw them Week Zero and they definitely improved.”
Though the Hawks’ onside kick was smothered by Brandon Dabney, Manteca would turn the ball over on downs, setting Central Valley up at the Buffaloes’ 30.
In a game like this, piecing together a 70-yard drive was anything but a chore.
To that point, Gardner quickly moved the Hawks into scoring position. He ripped off runs of 20 and 14 yards, moving the ball to the Buffalo 30.
Central Valley would have been wise to have kept the ball in Gardner’s hands.
Manteca defensive back Michael Gonzalez would punch the ball out of Angelo Bermudez’s mitts on the next play, springing linebacker Chase McKee for a 69-yard fumble recovery.
McKee raced away untouched, certain someone from Central Valley would track him down.
“I thought I’d get caught,” he said. “I’m not the fastest dude, but I’ve got a lot of heart.”
McKee said the defense may have surrendered enough yardage and points to fill two stat books, but it never lost its confidence.
“We’re always working hard in practice,” he said. “We’ve learned to never give up. We knew that was a big part in the game.”
Manteca will host No. 10 Casa Roble, which beat No. 7 Rosemont on Friday evening.
“I won’t celebrate something like this,” said Manteca High defensive coordinator Rick James, whose defense was gashed for 663 yards of total offense.
“Congratulations to the offense. We won tonight because we outscored them. The best thing about this is we’re one of eight teams to move on, and we get another opportunity to come out and make plays.”
There are no reservations about the Buffaloes’ offense.
Manteca did what it wanted – when it wanted, too.
Laurel topped 200 yards for the second time this season, but it was the shiftiness and speed of Gonzalez on the counter that helped Manteca gain separation.
Gardner’s 3-yard score with 21.8 seconds left in the half pulled the Hawks within one score. With CV set to receive the ball at the start of the second half, a tie seemed certain.
Gonzalez (6 carries, 108 yards, 2 TDs) had other plans, rocketing up the field for a 53-yard score to make it 49-35 at the intermission.
Dabney also had two touchdown receptions for the Buffaloes, who finished with 569 yards of offense.
“We’ve never been in anything like this,” Reis said. “It just shows we have a team, and we’re happy to be moving on.”