Much of the attention in the Valley Oak League has been on Central Catholic and Oakdale this season and understandably so.
Central Catholic has won the last three CIF Division IV State Bowl championships, and Oakdale is the reigning Division III king of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division.
Manteca has quietly kept pace, joining the others as the remaining undefeated teams in the VOL. The Buffaloes will have a chance to prove themselves Friday when Central Catholic visits Guss Schmiedt Field.
“This is a huge opportunity for us,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said. “Central Catholic is obviously a phenomenal program. We feel like we’re playing house money. They weren’t giving us much of a chance at the beginning of the season so we’re looking forward to giving it our best shot.”
The Buffaloes cracked the Cal-Hi Sports Division III state rankings Wednesday and is in the No. 9 spot. Central Catholic and Oakdale are third and fourth, respectively, behind Camarillo and Calabasas.
Central Catholic’s debut in the VOL last season was an instant classic against Manteca at David Patton Memorial Field. The Raiders took advantage of two turnovers on Manteca’s drives and jumped ahead, 14-0.
Absorbing that initial blow and countering immediately is a point of emphasis for Manteca this week. Reis likens Central Catholic to Mike Tyson in his prime and mixed-martial arts star Rhonda Rousey.
“We have to be able to withstand that flurry and pick our momentum up,” he said. “For us to win we have to play four quarters. It has to be a grinding type game where we can use the depth of our roster to hopefully slow them down a little bit.”
There has been no slowing down for the prolific Raiders so far. Even large-school powerhouse St. Mary’s couldn’t keep up in the annual Holy Bowl contest won by Central, 36-22. The Raiders are averaging 51.5 points per game and are coming off a 69-3 bludgeoning of Kimball.
Justin Rice, the VOL’s 2014 Offensive Player of the Year, had a breakthrough performance in last season’s win over Manteca. He scored all four of Central’s touchdowns as well as the winning 2-point conversion while scampering for 129 yards on 22 rushes. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Rice didn’t start out the season as the Raiders’ featured back, but injuries allowed him to take on that role. He is heading to Fresno State.
“He’s so tall and hard to bring down,” Manteca linebacker Marcus Rivas said. “Once he makes contact he just keeps driving and slides right off. He’s a real good runner.”
Rice (493 yards, five touchdowns) is just a piece of the puzzle that Manteca’s stout defense will look to solve Friday. The Buffaloes have surrendered just 20 points in six games but hasn’t seen an offense like Central’s.
Junior Jared Rice (494 yards, seven TDs), no relation to Justin, is actually the Raiders’ leading rusher, while Montell Bland has a team-high eight touchdowns to go with 271 rushing yards (8.5 per carry). Columbia-bound quarterback Hunter Petlansky (794 yards, 10 TDs) is also a threat as a runner (387 yards, six TDs).
“It’s not just one guy,” Rivas said. “We have to worry about the whole team. Everyone can make a play.”
Central Catholic also has playmakers on defense and is led by 6-1, 245-pound linebacker Kekupaa Freehauf (63 tackles). Manteca’s undersized line will have to hold its ground against the Raiders’ aggressive front.
“Their defensive line is very quick off the snap” Manteca quarterback Dakarai Charles said. “It just disrupts plays for an offense.”
Manteca has paid extra attention to special teams coverage. In the first half of last week’s 43-8 win at Sierra, the Buffaloes allowed three returns of 30-plus yards, including Daniel Wyatt’s 51-yard punt return that set up the Timberwolves’ only touchdown. Central Catholic has three kickoff return touchdowns.
“We did not play real well on special teams last week, and looking at the tape that’s another area that Central excels at,” Reis said. “We put a lot of time on that this week.”
Every detail counts when preparing against a team of Central Catholic’s caliber. The Buffaloes want to show they’re in the same class.
“Of course they’re going to talk about Oakdale and Central Catholic, they’re section champions,” Charles said. “That just gives us more motivation along with the losses to them from last year.
“We’re not being mentioned, but if we win they’ll start talking about us again.”