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Running backs key for local playoff teams
Manteca Highs Danny Gouveia looks to evade an Oakdale defender in a Week-9 battle of undefeated teams. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Manteca High’s committee approach has worked wonders.

Ripon rolls with a potent thunder-and-lightning combination.

And Ripon Christian boasts one dynamic back who has set school rushing records — as a sophomore.

It’s no coincidence that the three squads have qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. Each is dangerous with the pass, but it all starts on the ground.

Manteca has been spoiled at the running back position in recent seasons with 1,000-yard rushers such as Robert Ladiges, Marquis Miller and Andre Patterson coming to mind. Last year, Ladiges, MVP of the Valley Oak League, grinded out 1,650 yards and 25 touchdowns in 11 games, but it was a workmanlike 47-carry effort in a 26-20 win over Sierra that defined his season.

“We had to try and fill a big void (left) by Robert Ladiges,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said. “With him back there we didn’t have to worry about anything just handing off to him every single time.”

This year the Buffaloes (9-1) are spreading the wealth between four to five backs per game. Carries are even harder to come by of late with the return of 5-foot-10, 190-pound Anthony Hernandez from an elbow injury that sidelined him for five weeks. Last week, he had his most productive game (14 carries, 117 yards, two touchdowns) in a 35-14 win over East Union.

Any combination of Danny Gouveia (651 yards, seven TDs), Cameron Harvey (508, eight), Joe Trout (330, two) and Jamontee Jones (339, four) worked out well in Hernandez’s absence.

“They all do something unique,” Reis said. “Anthony is a very good inside-the-tackles runner, Cameron Harvey is the home-run threat up the middle, Gouveia is a classic scat back and Joe Trout is a hard-nosed runner. Each guy brings something to the table and they’re all really good.”

Reis added that using multiple backs is necessary to keep players fresh, as three of them play huge roles on defense as well. Trout starts at inside linebacker, Harvey is the team’s leading pass rusher and Gouveia is a playmaker in the defensive backfield.

At Ripon (8-2), the reunion of juniors Anthony Baciocco and Josh McCreath has been key to the Indians’ success. They were teammates on the Ripon Chiefs youth program, but in their first two years of high school they played at different levels. Baciocco was one of three sophomores who were on the varsity team last season.

“It’s been nice,” Baciocco said of the reunion. “I get to mess with him in practice, but being in the same backfield is awesome. We mesh really well.”

Having known each other for so long, the occasional side bet is unavoidable.

“During the Riverbank game I told him, ‘If you score on this touch right here I’ll buy you Taco Bell,’” McCreath said.

“I got tripped up at the 1,” Baciocco responded.

Defenses aren’t having as much fun trying to stop them.

The fleet-footed Baciocco has rushed for 980 yards (7.3 per carry) and five touchdowns, and the punishing McCreath has tallied 1,040 (6.1 per carry) and seven scores. Baciocco is also the team’s third-leading receiver with 20 catches, 255 yards and eight TDs.

They have thrived in a multi-faceted offense that includes two terrific pass catchers in Cole Herrin and Jake McCreath, Josh’s big — and we mean big at 6-4, 210 — brother who can rip good-sized gains on fly sweeps.

“If you shut down one thing that just opens up something else for us,” Josh McCreath said. “That’s the good thing about our offense; we have multiple guys we can go to.”

Then there’s happy-go-lucky Andrew Brown, the sophomore for 6-4 Ripon Christian who has turned in some of the more impressive individual efforts of the season.

On his first touch as a varsity player, he returned the opening kickoff 90 yards to paydirt, sparking a 40-0 win over Big Valley Christian in Week Zero.

“At first I dropped (the ball) and I was like, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’” Brown recalled. “When I scored I thought, ‘Hey, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.’”

Not bad at all.

Brown’s 1,379 yards and 21 touchdowns are both program records, and he is also the Knights’ leading receiver with 467 yards and five scores.

Last week he burned Gustine for 323 yards and five touchdowns, both season highs. Brown has performed against top teams, too, racking up around 100 yards of total offense with touchdowns against Southern League champion Le Grand, runner-up Mariposa and Linden in a non-league contest, and all three are postseason qualifiers.

While Manteca, Ripon and Ripon Christian have different ways of doing it, all share one important quality: A rugged offensive line.

“You see all those big Dutch kids? They’re massive,” Brown said. “I’m just this little Portuguese kid running behind these tanks. I really don’t have to do anything. They open up with some massive gaps and all I have to do is sprint through them.”