It’s a game that Christian Brothers has reason to believe it let slip away.
Rewind back to the Sept. 1 nonleague thriller between the Falcons, playing their first game of the season, and Manteca at Sacramento City College’s famed Hughes Stadium. The Buffaloes were fresh off a 22-20 win over San Jose power Valley Christian and came in as heavy favorites but found themselves down two scores with three minutes remaining.
Gino Campiotti spearheaded an improbable comeback, slinging two touchdown passes along with the deciding two-point conversion all to Pressley Keltner for a riveting 36-35 victory.
Christian Brothers was then hammered by Jesuit 43-14 the following week but has been on a tear since. Seeded third for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs, the Falcons soar into Guss Schmiedt Field on Friday riding a 10-game winning streak and hungry for revenge against No. 2 Manteca. Both teams are 10-2 heading into the anticipated semifinal showdown.
“We took a heck of a shot, and to withstand it and win was an incredible feeling for that game,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said. “That obviously gives them some (incentive) to beat us. We know they’re legit. We know we better bring our ‘A’ game because we may not have another chance like that.”
That game has helped defined the 2017 Buffaloes, who have aired it out more than in years past. They’ve scored at least 60 points in three of their last four games, including postseason blowouts against Rio Americano and American Canyon.
“We started the game in I-formation and our plan was to smash-mouth them, but they weren’t allowing that to happen,” Reis said. “By the end of the game here we are in spread, and as the year has evolved that’s who we’ve become. It’s neat to look back to see how we’ve evolved.”
Manteca has since thrived as new weapons blossomed. Sophomore Jacob DeJesus gives Campiotti another speed threat to go with Carter Williams and Keltner, while Jorge Cedano — the team’s back-up QB — has emerged as a sure-handed possession receiver. Additionally, sophomore tailback Trabron Russell enjoyed a late-season breakthrough but missed the Buffaloes’ quarterfinal contest with an ankle injury sustained in the opening round.
Williams is making up for lost time after hurting his leg at the end of a 41-yard run in the second play of the Christian Brothers game. He missed a month’s worth of action and played sparingly in his first two Valley Oak League appearances.
“It hurt,” Campiotti said of Williams’ early-season absence. “He’s a stud. He’s a special athlete and (despite) missing all those games he still has the most touchdown receptions on our team. While it hurt us, it also showed what we’re about as a team, that we can do anything no matter who we have available.”
Now at full strength, Campiotti and the Manteca attack are peaking in time for the big rematch. Campiotti has competed 78 percent of his postseason passes for nearly 600 yards and six touchdowns. Last week, with Russell on the mend, he rushed 13 times for a career-high 102 yards and five scores.
“We’re not like a lot of teams that start off with a playbook and ride out with it the whole year,” Campiotti said. “Week by week we try to get better. We’ll run plays that we’ll only run for one week, because we see a hole in the defense. I think that us just figuring out what works against certain defenses, it really came together. I think we’re playing our best football of the year the last couple of weeks.”
Christian Brothers also has a star-studded cast led by quarterback Gunnor Faulk and 6-foot-6, 232-pound Oregon-bound tight end Spencer Webb, who lit up the Buffaloes for 122 yards and three touchdowns in the first meeting.
Webb has 938 yards and 22 touchdowns on 52 receptions on the season. Faulk — who led Pace Academy of Atlanta, Ga. to a state title as a sophomore — ranks No. 5 in the state with 45 touchdown passes, according to MaxPreps and has thrown for 2,521 yards and eight interceptions. He’s also Christian Brothers’ leading rusher with 631 yards and six TDs.
“They’re such a prolific passing team and we’ve had trouble with passing,” Reis said. “Gunnor Faulk’s numbers don’t even seem real, and Spencer Webb is going to Oregon and the Pac-12 for a reason.”
After routing Benicia 59-0 in their playoff opener, the Falcons overcame a rough start to topple upset-minded Rio Linda, the No. 11 seed, 30-21. Christian Brothers trailed 21-14 at halftime until Faulk, who had four interceptions in the game, led a comeback win that included a pair of two-point conversion tosses in a 16-0 fourth-quarter run.
Christian Brothers has other big receivers in Tyler Green (719 yards, 16 TDs), Freddie Fiske (350-2) and Jack O’Hearn (310-5) but can also pound it on the ground behind linemen such as 6-5, 270-pound tackle Trey Price.
“They have weapons all over the place,” said Manteca safety Kyle Rachels, who sealed Manteca’s Week 1 win over Christian Brothers with an interception. “Their quarterback is a great athlete and makes plays, we just have to contain him. This quarterback can make a lot out of nothing, so we just have to keep playing to the whistle.”
Top-seeded Oakdale (11-1) and No. 4 Patterson (11-1) will duke it out in the other semifinal. The winners square off for the Division III championship on Friday, Dec. 1 at Lincoln High’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium in Stockton.