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Sierra sets sights on VOL title
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The Manteca-Sierra football rivalry smolders and smokes throughout the spring and summer months, before bursting into flames each autumn.

One man has stood on both sides of that fire, which rages once again this Friday evening at Gus Schmiedt Field.

Eric Reis has experienced all 19 renditions of this crosstown clash – first as a varsity assistant at Sierra, and for the last 12 years as the head coach of at Manteca.

“What’s been interesting is that they’ve all had different flavors over the years,” Reis said, “but (the rivalry) has definitely grown in intensity. With the great season they’ve had so far it’s made it different, for sure.”

Rare is the rivalry game that Manteca – a four-time Sac-Joaquin Section champion – has not been favored against Sierra, but that is the case this season.

The Timberwolves (5-0, 8-0), blessed with ample amounts of size, speed, discipline and pure football talent, have shaken up the Northern California bowl rankings with their record start.

Not only are the Timberwolves the prohibitive favorite on Friday, but a rousing 31-20 victory over Oakdale has thrust the silver and blue into regional bowl discussions.

The Timberwolves are No. 4 in the latest Division III Northern California bowl rankings and eighth in the Sac-Joaquin Section, all divisions.

With a win, Sierra can clinch at least a share of its second VOL championship, while Manteca (3-2, 6-2) looks to avoid its first three-loss league season in 11 years.

“We talk about a ladder. Each week is a new rung on that ladder. We have to step to that rung to get to the next. The kids have bought in,” Sierra coach Jeff Harbison said. “Do they know what is at stake? Sure. They know where they’re ranked in the VOL and where they’re ranked for the postseason. But we’re talking about getting past Manteca.”

For the Buffaloes to have any chance on Friday, Reis says they’ll need to stick to a game plan as old as the school itself – lean on the run, win the battle at the line of scrimmage, and control the clock.

“The hard part with them, you have to be true to who you are. I’d like to say we can go into four wideouts and spread the ball around,” Reis said, “but that’s not who we are. We have to do what we do best and then maybe adapt. That’s a major challenge for us.”

Manteca has throttled its last two opponents (Kimball and Weston Ranch) after a blowout loss to Oakdale at Levi’s Stadium on Oct. 11.

In both games, the Buffaloes dominated the line of scrimmage, springing quarterback Dakarai Charles and running back Hector Soto for big gains.

“I’ve been impressed with the line. They’ve started to come through. Even against Oakdale, I thought they did some really nice stuff,” Reis said. “If we’re going to have any chance on Friday, they’ll have to play well.”

That’s no easy feat, especially with Treyvon McCray watching the ball. He is the captain – and spiritual leader – of the VOL’s top scoring defense.

Sierra has limited Oakdale and Central Catholic to 31 offensive points.

“Defensively, we’ve proven ourselves holding Central Catholic to 17 points and Oakdale to 14,” Harbison said. “I think our defense has proven themselves well and Friday is another test.”

Reis believes Sierra’s middle linebacker has played as well as any player in the Valley Oak League this fall. McCray had a team-high 47 tackles, five forced fumbles, four sacks and one interception through seven games, according to MaxPreps.

“He’s got a good sense of knowing where the ball is going,” Reis said. “Then he brings that huge body and fast action. He’s a handful. He diagnoses things really quick.”

The same can be said about Manteca’s other headache – running back Mark Paule Jr.

The junior has 1,517 yards and 31 total touchdowns. Though he won’t wow you with his size, his speed, vision and balance have made a mockery of most defenses.

“No. 20 has been a great surprise,” Harbison said, “but he has to have a monster game in order for us to be successful.”

Stopping a top-tier running back hasn’t been Manteca’s strong suit.

Central Catholic’s Justin Rice had his coming out party against the Buffaloes, scoring all of the Raiders’ touchdowns in a 29-28 overtime win.

Oakdale fullback Frankie Trent lacked the artistic flair of a Rice or Paule, but had no reason to cut or juke. He punished Manteca’s middle, steamrolling all comers en route to 223 yards and six touchdowns.

Now chew on this: Paule has rushed for six or more touchdowns in a game three times this season. He had four in last week’s 35-21 win over East Union.

“He’s super quick, and with those kinds of guys up front, he’s done a phenomenal job in their system,” Reis said. “He’s able to find the creases and he runs hard.”

“You have to be ready. You have to be gap sound. If he approaches, you have to be ready to make the play. That’s what has got to happen. We have to use our quickness. We don’t have the size that they do. We have to be quick, get in those gaps and use that to our advantage.”

Sparks will fly Friday.

So says the most qualified person in this rivalry.

“We don’t have to try to get our team up for this game,” Reis said. “You better believe whatever speed they were at last week they’ll be five times faster (Friday).”