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Soto, Buffs continue reign over rival Sierra
Manteca High running back Hector Soto looks for running room against Sierra on Friday. Soto finished with 197 yards and two touchdowns, keying Mantecas 34-20 win. - photo by HIME ROMERO/ The Bulletin

The rain roused a tamed beast, grounded a team reaching for history and kept the Valley Oak League title chase in flux for one more week.

At the end of a drizzly evening at Guss Schmiedt Field, Manteca celebrated yet another victory over its inner-city rival, the boom of a cannon tacking on the exclamation point.

Hector Soto rushed for nearly 200 yards and Luis Reyes proved opportunistic once again, picking up a fumble and racing 76 yards for the decisive score in a 34-20 win over Sierra.

The league-leading Timberwolves were considered the prohibitive favorite – on paper.

Sierra rolled into the 20th edition of this rivalry with an 8-0 record – its best start in school history – and a chance to shore up at least a share of the Valley Oak League title.

But this game wasn’t played on paper. It was played in a swamp – and the Buffaloes frolicked in the murk and the mud. Manteca (4-2, 7-2) outscored Sierra 20-6 over the final two quarters.

“Our town!” the Manteca players and coaches cheered following the win, eliciting a roar from the pack of well-wishers streaming onto the field.

“This has to be one of the greatest wins I’ve been a part of,” said Manteca coach Eric Reis, whose program is now 14-6 against the Timberwolves. “When you factor in the rivalry and city bragging rights, to come out and get a win like this … what a special, special night.”

Sierra’s own party plans were put on hold for another week.

The rip-roaring Timberwolves were reduced to a whimper in the elements.  Sierra turned the ball over three times, managed just 42 rushing yards, and found the end zone only once in the second half.

Afterwards, as he picked his way through the mud and sea of solemn faces, head coach Jeff Harbison did his best to move past the loss. The Timberwolves can still clinch at least a share of the VOL championship next Friday at Weston Ranch, a team with just two VOL victories.

Sierra is tied with Central Catholic and Oakdale at 5-1. The latter two play each other next week at The Corral in Oakdale.

“That’s the message we’re going to go with all week. We’re still playing for something,” Harbison said. “The credit goes to Manteca. No. 25 (Soto) was a workhorse. Their lines dominated our lines and that was the difference in the game.”

When asked how long it would take his team to get over a loss so draining, both emotionally and physically, Harbison was succinct: “Midnight.”

A game that played out evenly over the first two quarters quickly got away from the Timberwolves in the third.

Knotted at 14s at the half, Reis challenged the Buffaloes to finish with a flurry against the last of the VOL’s heavyweights. Manteca was 0-2 against Oakdale and Central Catholic – its only two losses of the season – and lacked a killer instinct down the stretch in each of those games.

Not so on Friday.

Third-string running back Carl Chandler gave Manteca the lead for good with a 65-yard touchdown run with 6:18 left in the third quarter. Chandler took a pitch to the right, cut back against the defense and shot into a clearing for the score.

After Sierra stalled at the Manteca 27-yard line, giving the ball back on downs, Soto provided the separation with a weaving 42-yard scoring run along the home sideline. Manteca led 28-14 after Marcus Montano’s extra point.

Sierra, which answered each of the Buffaloes’ first-half scores with quick strikes of their own, did so again on the ensuing possession.

Devin Nunez tossed his second 70-yard touchdown pass of the game – this one a play-action pass to Nick Lucchetti (three catches, 100 yards).

The speedy slot receiver blew past Manteca safety Marcus Rivas and under a beautifully placed ball. Sierra missed the two-point conversion though, leaving the score at 28-20.

It felt like a game, again.

For a second or two.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Buffaloes fumbled the ball at the 24, where Reyes was waiting.

The explosive senior scooped up the free ball and took it like a jet sweep around the scrum and up the sideline. The 76-yard score would serve as the death knell in the Timberwolves’ perfect season.

“I don’t know what it is, man. I just follow the ball,” said Reyes, who also scored on a 62-yard fumble return against Oakdale.

“That basically sealed it for us. It feels amazing to get this win. We’ve been waiting all season for a game like this.”

The Buffaloes’ much-maligned defense turned Sierra’s multi-faceted spread offense into a one-trick pony.

Running back Mark Paule Jr. was held to a season-low 57 yards on 20 carries and didn’t score a touchdown for the first time in nine games.

The shifty back couldn’t find any traction on a field that had been turned to soup.

Soto, on the other hand, had no such problems. The 5-foot-6, 179-pound senior was at home in the slop.  He carried the ball 31 times for 197 yards and two touchdowns.

He opened the scoring with a 4-yard burst, capping an impressive opening drive by the Buffaloes. Manteca moved 65 yards on 10 plays. Six of those plays were designed for Soto.

“We talked about who the rain would favor?” Reis said. “I think we know.”

No arguments from Harbison, whose offense (297 yards) had just 5 more total yards than the Buffaloes’ rush attack (292).

“Both teams had to play in it,” Harbison, “and they persevered.”

With Paule neutralized, Nunez shouldered the load for the Timberwolves. He was 13 of 23 for 255 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Hunter Johnson had six catches for 104 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown that made it 14-14 with less than a minute left in the first half. On that play, Johnson reached over his defender and snagged the ball with one hand.

Daniel Wyatt also scored for Sierra, returning a fumble 10 yards in the first quarter.