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Seniors still stinging from heartbreaking losses
Sept. 3: vs. Galt
Sept. 10: vs. Tracy
Sept. 17: at Enochs
Sept. 24: at Kimball
Oct. 1: vs. W. Ranch
Oct. 8: vs. Sierra
Oct. 15: at Sonora
Oct. 22: at Lathrop
Oct. 29: vs. Oakdale
Nov. 5: at East Union
The 2009 season was one marked by gut-wrenching losses for the Manteca Buffaloes.

None was more brutally painful than the 35-28 loss to Casa Roble in the opening round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs.

The ninth-seeded Rams were standing on wobbled legs by the midway point of the third quarter, down 28-3 on the road. Their special teams kept them in the fight.

A field goal with 3:36 left in the third was followed by an onside kick that led to seven more points less than 2 minutes later.

The Buffaloes didn’t know what hit them.

“A loss like that is something to be ashamed about,” said senior quarterback Matt Burrows, who shared the role under center against Casa Roble. “We worked hard all summer to (atone for) that loss.”

Added RB/LB Robert Ladiges, “We want to prove last year was a fluke. Everybody’s motivated, especially the seniors.”

Other losses have fueled this senior class:

• In Week 2 of non-league action, Manteca’s then-juniors suffered their first taste of defeat after going 20-0 at the freshman and sophomore levels. Traditional rival Tracy put Manteca away late with a fake punt that went for six points on fourth-and-long, winning 35-20.

• Intracity rival Sierra had lost seven straight to the Buffaloes before producing a 7-6 stunner in 2008. Last year’s grudge match wasn’t so close — not at first. Sierra scored 23 unanswered points to start before Manteca made it a game and eventually tapped out, 23-15.

• The Buffaloes needed to beat Oakdale on the road to have a shot at earning at least a share of the Valley Oak League championship — and nearly did. Down by five late in the contest, Manteca was stopped on fourth-and-2 on Oakdale’s 9-yard line and ended up losing, 35-23.

A seven-win, four-loss season for a lot of programs would be considered a success, but not for one that won three SJS playoff championships in four title-round appearances from 2001-06. The 2006 season was when the Buffs won their last league championship and went 13-0.

“Our expectations are always high, and the expectations we have of the players in practice is always the same,” head coach Eric Reis said.

Expectations remain despite the turnover of talent. Six players named to the all-league first team graduated, including Outstanding Offensive Player of the Year Marquis Miller (1,572 yards, 22 TDs). There are others who starred on the lower level teams but transferred out.

Ladiges replaces Miller as the Buffaloes’ lead back, with Josh Nkwocha starting at fullback.

The 5-foot-10, 215-pound Ladiges started in the backfield of Manteca’s undefeated sophomore team two years ago and is eager to play a more prominent role offensively in his final varsity season.

“I can’t wait. I’m hoping to get like 30 carries a game,” Ladiges said.

That might be lofty for a team that plans on spreading the wealth this year, partially out of necessity.

Ladiges and Nkwocha are two of many Buffaloes starting at key spots on both offense and defense. Ladiges again starts at linebacker and Nkwocha at nose guard.

Lacking the all-around depth of years past, Manteca may take a cautious approach to not overtax some players. That’s where Burrows and the passing game come into play.

 “We’re going to probably be more balanced than we ever have in my tenure here just because of what (Burrows) can do, and we have some guys to throw it to. It makes sense for us,” Reis said.

Michael Timmins, a superb center fielder for Manteca’s playoff baseball team last spring, was the Buffaloes’ surprise performer in camp, as he has worked his way into starting positions at wide out and safety.

Timmins (6-2, 186) can pose problems with his size and speed. Ryan Culpepper is the projected starter at the other receiver spot.

“I’ve been real happy with Michael Timmins,” Reis said. “He had a great baseball season last year, and he’s been rock-solid on both sides of the ball for us.”
The offensive line lost all-league first-team honoree Jeff Collins but returns center C.J. Rivas (6-2, 234), Johnny Ruiz (5-11, 267) and Dylan Law (6-2, 268).

Defensively, Rivas joins Ladiges at linebacker, where Manteca has its most depth. The front seven is big and physical, but the secondary lacks experience.

Thanks to the section’s addition of “zero week” to the schedule, Manteca will take advantage of the extra time to prepare for the season.

 Instead of playing a zero-week game today, the Buffaloes will scrimmage in Tracy against Division-I West and Antioch’s Deer Valley. Manteca hosted a three-team jamboree that included Ripon and former VOL foe Central Valley last weekend.

Galt comes to town Sept. 3 for Manteca’s non-league opener and is followed by a rematch with Tracy, which finished 10-0 in the regular season last year.

The meat of the Buffaloes’ schedule comes in the latter half of the regular season, with the other three VOL contenders — Sierra (Oct. 8), Sonora (Oct. 15) and Oakdale (Oct. 29) — lined up almost in succession.

“Sonora is going to be very, very good, but Oakdale and Sierra are champions and are still the teams to beat,” Reis said.