After sputtering midway through the season, the Green Machine has reached top speed just in time for another postseason run.
East Union, a long-suffering program looking for a send-off win for 19 seniors, was nothing more than a bug on the Buffaloes’ windshield.
Manteca scored on its first 10 possessions, Hector Soto needed only seven carries to top the 1,000-yard mark and Dakarai Charles tossed two touchdowns in a record-tying 70-21 rout in front of a capacity crowd at Dino Cunial Field.
The Buffaloes now lead the all-time series with their oldest rival, 33-13-1, and have won 14 of the 15 meetings. In this one, Manteca tied the series record for most points scored in a game, matching its 1997 team.
“We looked really efficient and really clean. What I was happy with is that we kept our level,” head coach Eric Reis said. “We’ve won four in a row now and we’re playing really good football, and I think you saw that tonight.”
It’s no coincidence the Buffaloes’ dramatic improvement in the last month has mirrored Soto’s production.
Slowed by an injury that knocked him out of a loss to Central Catholic on Sept. 26, Soto has set a blistering pace in the last four games.
The 5-foot-6, 179-pound senior played only the first quarter on Friday evening, but set the rout in motion with a 56-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
He tacked on touchdown runs of 25 and 2 yards on the ensuing possessions and then retired to the sidelines, finishing with 131 yards on just seven touches.
For the season, Soto has 1,074 yards on 135 carries, an average of nearly 8 yards per touch.
“He got a thousand yards tonight, which is big. Not that we try to get stats, but we haven’t fed him like a guy like that,” Reis said. “So I’m happy for him to be able to get 1,000 yards.”
Lechi Nkwocha had two rushing touchdowns, while Carl Chandler and Mario Gonzalez had one apiece for the Buffaloes, who amassed 334 yards on the ground and averaged 12 yards per carry.
“I’m not going to lie. In the beginning of the game it was a nightmarish type of scenario,” East Union coach Willie Herrera said. “Kudos to them. I think a 90-year-old woman running backwards could have run through the holes they were making.”
Charles was 7-of-9 passing for a season-high 157 yards.
Luis Reyes scored his sixth touchdown in five games on a 50-yard reception, and junior Ronaldo Tijero reeled in an 18-yard scoring grab late in the second quarter.
Manteca hasn’t lost since a 42-21 loss to Oakdale at Levi’s Stadium on Oct. 11. Since then, the Buffaloes, healthy and hungry, have outscored their opponents 208-55. That run includes a 34-20 whipping of Sierra, which clinched a share of the Valley Oak League crown on Friday.
The Green Machine may have been bumped from their throne, but they’ve positioned themselves for a sprint finish in the Division III playoffs, of which they’re the defending champion.
Since the Oakdale loss, Reis has been steadfast about his team’s priorities – the objective isn’t a league championship, he often lamented, but the section’s coveted blue banner.
Manteca will likely be a top -five seed when the brackets are announced today. It would be hard to argue otherwise.
“Every year we’ve done well in the playoffs, we’ve done well at the end of the (regular) season,” Reis said, “and this year we’re playing pretty well at the end of the season.”
Though it trailed 42-0 early in the second quarter, East Union didn’t go quietly.
Allowed to freelance and sling the ball, quarterback Jack Weaver thrived with the ball in his hands. He passed for a season-high 212 yards and three touchdowns. He also led the Lancers in rushing with 26 yards.
Weaver was 11-of-19 one week after completing just one of 14 passes.
“I think it’s safe to say any team in the VOL would take this guy as their quarterback,” Herrera said. “He’s the kind of kid that doesn’t come around very often. To be as smart as he is … to be as composed as he is … it’s just a blessing.”
Herrera said the blowout loss won’t dampen what has been a turnaround season. The Lancers were just 1-9 in each of his first three years, but closed 2014 with three wins and a spirited effort against Sierra.
Herrera said with 10 sophomores playing significant minutes, the cauldron boils with potential.
“The guys get it. That’s what I like about this group,” he added. “They don’t want to stop. That’s the spirit of this team. They don’t stop. They want to win.”
The Buffaloes are just better at it, closing the regular season with nine wins for the eighth time in Reis’ 12 years at the helm.