By JAMES BURNS
Some would say he’s as explosive and fun to watch as a firework lighting up the night sky. And like a Fourth of July pyrotechnic, all Manteca High’s Luis Reyes needed was someone to light his fuse. Enter: Alex Laurel, the 2013 Valley Oak League MVP.
Now a freshman at Butte College, Laurel met up with Manteca coach Eric Reis following a game at Delta on Oct. 4. Very early in their conversation, Reis says Laurel asked about Reyes, a player he was certain would explode on the scene.
Reis had no choice but to answer truthfully.
To that point, Reyes, a three-way player with blazing speed, had been pedestrian.
This came as a complete shock to Laurel. He and Reyes had grown close during Manteca’s historic run to the 2013 NorCal regional championship.
Reis relayed that news to Reyes ... in the form of a challenge, of course.
“When coach told me that, I knew I wasn’t doing so well. I knew I wasn’t doing as much as I wanted to,” Reyes said. “I started focusing more and doing what I was prepared to do. After that, it’s been a different season for me.”
Reyes’ response has positioned the Buffaloes for another deep postseason run. The Buffaloes look to complete the city championship on Friday at East Union in their regular-season finale.
At 7-2, Manteca is a lock for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs. A win would bolster its chances at a first- and second-round home game.
Buffalo fans would enjoy at least one more fireworks show at Guss Schmiedt Field.
Since having his fuse lit, Reyes has become the game-changing weapon on special teams and offense that the coaching staff hoped he’d be.
Five of Reyes’ six total touchdowns have come in the last four games. Manteca is 3-1 during that stretch and playing as well as it has all season, as witnessed by Friday’s 34-20 victory over previously unbeaten Sierra.
Reyes found the end zone twice and his 76-yard scoop-and-score in the third quarter was the death blow to the Timberwolves’ hopes of an outright league championship.
“I know plays like that can happen, so I just want to be around when they do,” he said. “I follow the ball just in case. The first thing I make sure is that I get it and keep possession.”
He did more than that.
Reyes snatched momentum back from Sierra, whose crowd was still celebrating Nick Lucchetti’s 70-yard touchdown catch moments earlier that cut Manteca’s lead to eight, 28-20.
When the ball squirted out of the scrum on the ensuing kickoff, Reyes, one of the Buffs’ return men, fielded it near the 24-yard-line and bolted up the sideline.
Not even the mud could slow him down.
“My speed helps me out a lot,” said Reyes, who was last clocked in the 40-yard dash (4.66 seconds) as an eighth grader. “On that play, I knew the sideline would be open because everything was going right.”
Reyes also had a 28-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. He collected a pass in the flat, cut back across the field and into space.
Reis called the victory one of the greatest of his illustrious career, and to be sure, it was Manteca’s biggest win of the season.
A resurgent Reyes helped deliver the moment.
His season changed on Oct. 11, one week after Laurel’s inquiry.
“I know people believe in me. (Laurel) would always coach me up, because I was taking his spot. That’s helped me. He works hard and he passed that onto me,” Reyes said. “Coming from him, it’s a big deal. I took it personal; I’m trying to make him proud.”
Almost immediately, there was a noticeable difference in his play. Reis challenged Reyes on the Monday of Oakdale week, and the 5-foot-9, 150-pound speedster was one of the few bright spots in a 42-21 loss at Levi’s Stadium.
He scored twice in that setback, too, including another scoop-and-score.
On that play, Reyes picked up Charles’ fumble and carried it 62 yards into the end zone. The highlight was replayed on the video board above the 49ers’ billion-dollar stadium.
Later, as Charles kept a play alive with his feet, Reyes drifted into space and reeled in a cross-field throw. He turned the broken play into a 67-yard touchdown.
Reyes is the team’s second-leading receiver with 13 receptions and 272 yards and a pesky cornerback (four deflections), but his speed and instincts on special teams and broken plays may prove invaluable to the Buffaloes’ hopes of defending their section crown.
In an instant, Reyes can change field position or turn a blunder into six points. His fumble return on Friday was Manteca’s first kickoff return for a touchdown this season.
“Last year we were bringing back kicks like every game because of (Laurel),” Reyes said. “We all know it can happen.”