Alex Laurel followed the herd of Buffalo-sized blockers in front of him, veering outside the tackle box.
Be patient, he thought to himself. Wait for it. … Wait for it. … Go!
“All those big boys in front of you,” the Manteca High running back said, “you know there’s something good waiting for you on the other end.”
Indeed, there was.
Laurel found nothing but open pasture along the home sideline, turning this second-quarter carry into a game-defining moment Friday evening.
“Nitro,” as his teammates and coaches call him, raced away from the Sonora High defense for a 55-yard touchdown, highlighting Manteca’s 49-21 victory over its ancient Valley Oak League adversary at Guss Schmiedt Field.
Manteca imposed its will on the Wildcats in their final meeting as VOL opponents. Sonora leaves to the Mother Lode League next fall as part of the Sac-Joaquin Section’s realignment.
The issue: A declining enrollment and an ever tightening budget, which many believe creates a competitive imbalance.
On this night, the Buffaloes proved the realignment committee’s point. Manteca tilted the field in its favor, relying on the blocking power of Billy Sharmoug and Isaac McClain and the athleticism of Laurel.
The Buffaloes (1-0 VOL, 3-1) rushed for five touchdowns, and for the first time all season, Laurel shouldered the load.
He scored three touchdowns, tacking on a 20-yard burst and a 1-yard dive to his second-quarter sprint. More importantly, the 5-foot-8, 174-pounder proved he could be an every-down back in the Buffaloes’ ground-and-pound offense.
Laurel rushed for a game-high 188 yards on 20 touches and had four carries of 16 yards or more.
“He’s a special player,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said.
After muted performances in his last two outings – against Santa Clara Wilcox and Los Banos, respectively – Laurel challenged himself to be more of an impact player.
Be patient, he told himself, but when the moment is right …
“I feel like that second game (vs. Wilcox) we came out flat. At Los Banos, I wasn’t at my best. This week, I had to set the tone,” he said. “I have confidence in my blockers, and I knew I was going to have time to figure out where I was going.”
Michael Gonzalez (11 carries, 67 yards) and Luis Reyes had two touchdowns apiece for the Buffaloes, picked to finish second behind six-time defending champion Oakdale in The Bulletin’s VOL media poll.
Laurel acknowledged the chip on their shoulders.
“We wanted to come out and send a message to the Valley Oak League,” he said. “We wanted to show them that we’re back in business.”
It wasn’t a wasted trip for Sonora, which lost its fourth straight game to begin the season.
The triple-option offense was effective between the 20-yard lines. The Wildcats rushed for 277 yards and averaged nearly 6 yards per carry.
Ryan Puou had 124 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries and Kade Barajas 105 yards.
But the offense continued to be its own worst enemy. One week after turnovers doomed the ’Cats in a 13-0 loss to Calaveras, quarterback Zach Atwood threw two interceptions and was sacked twice by Lechi Nkwocha.
Brandon Dabney (three catches, 81 yards) and Elijah Cooper recorded interceptions for the Buffaloes.
“The turnovers were big,” Reis said. “You can’t totally stop them, but the turnovers were big for us.”
Gonzalez opened the scoring with a 1-yard run early in the first quarter.
Fourteen seconds after Puou answered with a 12-yard scoring run, Reyes ripped off a 96-yard kickoff return to make it 14-7.
Reyes would later stretch the lead to 35-14 in the third quarter on a 13-yard pop pass from Joe Menzel (7 of 11, 105 yards, interception).
Gonzalez closed the scoring in the fourth quarter with a 10-yard burst.