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Cota scores 5 TDs for Sierra in return to Manteca
Sierras Anthony Cota breaks through the Manteca defense and heads for the endzone Friday in Sierras win over Manteca High. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Anthony Cota laughs last.

Sierra’s star running back accounted for all five of his team’s touchdowns and churned out 222 rushing yards on 22 carries as the Timberwolves rolled to an emotional 35-26 victory at Manteca High’s Guss Schmiedt Field. Manteca still leads the all-time series, 12-6.

Cota started his high school career at Manteca but transferred after his freshman year. He returned to his old stomping grounds as a sophomore on the varsity squad but Sierra lost, 26-20. The Buffaloes won again last season 28-7 with Cota sidelined with a broken forearm.

Fully recovered from the injury and extra motivated, there was no stopping him on Friday.

“Anthony had a tremendous night running the ball,” Sierra coach Jeff Harbison said. “One person did not bring him down. We told him tonight that this is his house, and we made it his house.”

As if slowing down Cota wasn’t enough, Manteca (2-1 Valley Oak League, 3-3 overall) had to overcome its own mistakes along with two gutsy fourth-down calls that backfired.

The Buffaloes never led but had a chance to jump ahead with a point-blank field-goal opportunity with 9 minutes left in the game. Down 28-26, the Buffaloes faced a fourth-and-goal situation on the Sierra 2-yard line.

They called timeout and the offensive unit returned to the field. Quarterback Ryan Fox pitched it back to Eddie Smith (24 rushes, 121 yards, TD), but the ball slipped through his hands. Defensive tackle Mason Merilles was the first of a gang of Timberwolves to stop him on the 12.

“They were overplaying the inside runs, so we thought we’d run outside toss and outflank them,” said Manteca coach Eric Reis. “He could have walked in. In hindsight, yeah we could have made the kick, but that was an easy seven points so I can’t question that one.”

Sierra (2-1, 5-1) countered with a 13-play scoring drive spanning 88 yards and 6 minutes, 44 seconds. Senior QB Guillermo Nunez, playing in relief of starter Jake Pruitt (9 of 18, 127 yards, interception) for a few plays, keyed the series with a 36-yard completion to Bryson Sanders. Cota later plowed his way into the end zone from 7 yards out, and Joshua Gonzalez booted the final point of the game with 2:07 remaining.

Manteca’s desperation drive in the end stalled out on the Sierra 12, and Pruitt kneeled it down to run out the clock.

“I knew they’d go for it and go up by a touchdown,” Cota said of Manteca’s decision to not kick the field goal. “I don’t think they would have stopped our offense. That drive won us the game.”

Earlier, Manteca went for it on fourth-and-1 from its own 24 and Smith was stuffed by Cota for a 1-yard loss. Three plays later, Cota ran it in from 27 yards out on third-and-14 to make it 14-6 Sierra with 8:17 left in the second quarter.

“We pride ourselves on getting a yard and we went for it, which in hindsight was not good,” Reis said. “We have no one to blame but ourselves. If you can’t get a yard you don’t deserve to win.”

The game started with several momentum changers.

After forcing Sierra to go three-and-out on the opening drive, Fox hit Tylo Both for a 51-yard pass play on Manteca’s first series. That set the Buffaloes up on the Sierra 16, but Fox’s pitch to Smith resulted in a fumble that Sierra recovered.

Cota bolted for an impressive 80-yard touchdown run on the next play, putting his array of skills on display by evading tackles with power, speed and agility.

“All the momentum went our way,” Cota said. “That was big.”

Cota scored three touchdowns in the second quarter, but Manteca stayed within reach with two of its own. Brandon Dabney had a big first half, intercepting a pass and breaking up two others. His 73-yard kickoff return was followed by Joe Menzel’s 12-yard TD strike to sophomore Andrew Gardner. The conversion run failed, and Sierra remained ahead 21-19.

The Timberwolves took a 28-19 lead into halftime after Cota’s 1-yard touchdown with 1:17 to go.

Manteca dominated the third quarter, running 22 plays to Sierra’s six while closing in 28-26 on Fox’s 3-yard run.

None of that mattered in the end.

Too much Cota, too many mistakes.

“We made too many mistakes, but let’s be honest here — Cota was the best player on the field by far,” Reis said. “He made a lot of plays for them, for sure.”