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Manteca a win away from 5th section title; NorCal berth
Manteca head coach Eric Reis, right, directs his players as they go over the game plan for Saturdays Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship game against Placer. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Thanksgiving came a day early for the Buffaloes.

Manteca High’s football team was treated to a tri-tip and chicken dinner from Fagundes Meats & Catering after its weekly Wednesday night practice.

“We’ve been really blessed,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said. “One of the parents got all the dads together for that. 

“They bailed Coach James out.”

That’s right.

This one was supposed to be on Rick James, Reis’ longtime defensive coordinator. 

It’s a team tradition for James to feed the players following shutouts, and he’s already opened up the pocketbook for three of these this year. The top-seeded Buffaloes (11-1) produced a fourth goose egg with last Friday’s 52-0 walloping of No. 4 Los Banos (8-4) in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinals.

On Saturday, they’ll make the program’s ninth appearance in a section final while going after a fifth championship. Standing in the way will be No. 2 Placer (7-5) at Lincoln High in Stockton. It’s a rematch 41 years in the making; Placer knocked off the Buffs 20-6 in the section’s first Division II final back in 1975.

“All that hard work we put in since before the season started, it definitely feels good to accomplish one of our goals,” senior outside linebacker Devyn Gonzales said. “We want to move past sections and get to state, but for now us seniors are just real happy to still be in it playing for a section title.”

For Reis, it’s his fifth section final. Manteca lost the Division III title game to Colfax 33-30 in 2002 — Reis’ inaugural season as head coach at his alma mater — but won in 2005, 2006 and 2013. 

Former Buffaloes Billy Sharmoug and Isaac McClain — now offensive linemen for Santa Barbara City College — were among the members of the 2013 team to make a guest appearance in practice Wednesday night. The current seniors were freshmen when Manteca overpowered Sacramento 49-6 for the SJS Division III banner and advanced to the CIF State Division II Northern California Regional Bowl Game. A win Saturday gives Manteca another shot at a NorCal game after losing a 27-21 heartbreaker to Enterprise in 2013.

“Guys like Billy and Isaac, they were definitely role models for me,” Gonzales said. “We wanted to just continue what they were doing. We didn’t get to win any titles my sophomore and junior years, but we’re here now with a chance to get that ring ourselves. We’ve been in big games but nothing to this extent.”

Manteca was expected to get to this point after the school’s declining enrollment dropped it to Division IV, but Reis made sure his players did not overlook their previous opponents. The Buffaloes opened the postseason with a 42-13 win over Dixon before lambasting Los Banos, the Western Athletic Conference runner-up.

Now they’re up against a title-starved Placer team led by Joey Montoya. His grandfather, Bill Miller, guided the Hillmen to five Division II championships in seven years (1975-1981) but they haven’t won one since, losing Division IV finals against Whitney and Modesto Christian in 2008-09.

“It’s great to be back in the finals,” Montoya said. “It goes to show how hard it is just to get to this game in our section.”

Placer had arguably its most talented team in 2015 but was bumped up to the brutal Division III bracket where it lost to eventual four-time CIF State small-schools division champion Central Catholic 48-14 in the semifinals.

The Hillmen lost much of that talent to graduation and reloaded with sophomores, juniors and unproven seniors who spearheaded their Pioneer Valley League co-championship.

Sophomore quarterback Michael Stuck (1,362 yards, five TDs, eight INTs) directs the Wing-T offense that stars to juggernaut fullbacks in 6-foot, 215-pound Mario Perez (1,116 yards, 15 TDs) and 5-11, 225-pound Morgan Rein-Robinson (635 yards, 15 TDs) as well as all-purpose playmaker Anthony Kerrigan (1,533 total yards, 12 touchdowns).

Reis likens the Hillmen to Valley Oak League rival Oakdale and Sonora, a former VOL foe that the Buffaloes scrimmaged against in the preseason.

“It’s a one-horse town like Oakdale and Sonora,” Reis said. “They run their Wing-T real well and on defense they’re super aggressive. When they see the ball they chase it with ferocity.

“Hopefully for us seeing a team like that before isn’t a mystery. At least we’re not playing at their place. You can see on film when they play at Placer it’s a whole different world.”