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Manteca was still a threat after historic 2013 season
Hector Soto grinds out extra yardage during Mantecas 49-14 blowout of Vanden in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs. - photo by HIME ROMERO

This was supposedly a rebuilding year for Manteca.

The entire offensive line — featuring NCAA Division II signees Joe Eavenson, Isaac McClain and Billy Sharmoug — had graduated. As did Alex Laurel, the program’s all-time single-season record holder for touchdowns scored. They were the stars of Manteca’s 2013 squad that secured the program’s first Sac-Joaquin Section championship and first-ever invitation to a CIF Northern California Regional Bowl Game. 

That’s a tough act to follow, but the 2014 Buffaloes (9-3) proved to be up to the challenge. In the end, however, their third crushing defeat of the season left them short of their ultimate goal.

In the second round of the SJS Division III playoffs, Sacramento visited Guss Schmiedt Field with revenge in mind. It was the same Sacramento team that Manteca pasted 49-6 in last year’s championship game, setting a record for largest margin of victory in a Division III final. 

The Dragons’ all-around playmaking ability and a controversial call on Manteca’s final offensive play of the season led to a 34-28 loss for the Buffaloes. After Sacramento’s defense held Manteca in the red zone, quarterback Caden Voges (316 yards, 4 TDs) hooked up with Talik Ellis for an 89-yard touchdown and the go-ahead score with 4:15 remaining. 

The Buffaloes marched downfield and had one last shot at tying it. On fourth down, Ronaldo Tijero reached high for the ball delivered by Dakarai Charles and appeared to come down with it with a one-handed snag. He had the ball pressed against his hip as he tumbled to the turf, but did he retain control of it throughout the process? Following a long discussion, the officials ruled that he had not.

Manteca’s successful two-year run has been marred by grueling defeats. Following an impressive 3-0 start, the Buffaloes began their Valley Oak League title defense against conference newcomer Central Catholic, a small-school powerhouse that owns a section-high 17 championship banners and captured state titles in the previous two seasons. Manteca overcame a sloppy start and injuries to key players to make a game of it but lost 29-28 in overtime on Justin Rice’s conversion run. Charles had injured a knee in practice and played through the pain, while standout running back/linebacker Hector Soto left early in the second half and never returned from a leg ailment.

Charles and Soto did not start the next week against Lathrop, and it seemed as if their services were not needed after the Buffaloes staked a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Both ended up playing in the second half as Manteca escaped with a 14-12 win.

Then came the frustrating blowout at Levi’s Stadium, where Manteca was originally going to face Wilcox on Aug. 29. The “Friday Night Lights” event was postponed because of issues with the turf, but Manteca was presented with a great alternative: Taking on longtime VOL rival Oakdale in a rare mid-season day game on Saturday, Oct. 11. But it was the Mustangs who trampled their way to a 42-21 win behind fullback Frankie Trent’s six touchdown rushes.

Manteca, to its credit, bounced off the canvas to mount one of its trademark late-season runs. The Buffaloes bashed their way to the SJS quarterfinal with a five-game winning streak, which includes a 34-20 upset of then-unbeaten cross-town foe Sierra on Halloween. Soto, fully healed from his earlier leg injury, churned out 197 yards and two touchdowns on the muddy Guss Schmiedt Field.

Despite taking fourth in the competitive VOL, the Buffaloes were awarded the No. 4 seed for the loaded SJS Division III playoffs. They opened with a 49-14 drubbing of Vanden, a program that 13th-year Manteca coach Eric Reis was previously 0-2 against.

Soto shined as Manteca’s lead back after serving as the team’s third option behind Michael Gonzalez and Laurel in the Power-I offense. Soto finished with 1,276 yards (7.5 per carry) and 18 touchdowns. Every-down senior Luis Reyes also emerged as one of the area’s most dangerous big-play threats as a receiver (471 yards, 5 TDs), rusher, cornerback and special teams returner.

Manteca must once again replace an all-senior offensive line, this one anchored by two-way starters Steven Martinez (5-9, 254) and Darrell Clemons (6-2, 265). Elijah Root-Sanchez returns next season with the most experience after seeing ample time in relief. The junior class has little size outside of the 5-10, 260-pound Root-Sanchez, so the coaching staff may take a good look at current freshmen Justin Kakala (6-3, 249) and Kyle Reis (6-2, 234). McClain and Sharmoug was the last tandem to start on the varsity line as sophomores.

Running back/outside linebacker Lechi Nkwocha (556 yards, 10 TDs; 5.5 sacks), receiver/safety Dom Pisano (team-high 72 tackles) and center/inside linebacker Chase McKee are other two-way starters vacating key roles. Third-year kicker Marcus Montano also graduates.

There is still hope for Manteca to remain as one of the section’s elite mid-size-school programs. Fullback/outside linebacker Darrion Kitson, safety Marcus Rivas (63 tackles), Charles (1,075 yards passing, 14 TDs; 347 yards rushing, 8 TDs) and Tijero (320 receiving yards, 7 TDs; 3 interceptions) are among the top returning juniors. Rivas may have an expanded role on offense after not receiving any carries. In 2013, he was the second-leading rusher behind Kitson while helping the sophomore team go 10-0.

There are also a slew of talented underclassmen coming up from the freshman and sophomore teams that each went 9-1.