The Valley Oak League’s top two offensive players of 2010 graduated from Manteca High’s co-championship team last May.
The expectation to win has not.
Manteca is one of the fortunate few in the region that succeeds year after year despite losing talent annually. One constant is the coaching staff, which has endured little change since Eric Reis — who became the program’s winningest coach of all-time last season — took over in 2002.
“Our expectation from one year to the next remains the same: We expect to win every single game that we play,” Reis said. “The page turns and I’m excited about the new challenge. Every year it’s something different.”
The 2011 team definitely looks different from its predecessor.
Ten all-VOL first-team selections are among the graduation casualties, including league MVP Robert Ladiges and Offensive Player of the Year Matt Burrows.
Ladiges rushed for 1,650 yards and 25 touchdowns while redefining the word “workhorse” with his 47-carry workload in a 26-20 win against Sierra. And Burrows completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,036 yards and 21 touchdowns to nine interceptions.
Following in those footsteps is daunting with just two offensive starters returning, but Manteca is confident it can retain some of that balance.
Senior Alex Martinez was Burrows’ understudy last year and was previously the starting quarterback for the freshman and sophomore teams. Martinez earned his stripes along with the faith of his coaches and teammates over the summer, as he helped Manteca win the Delta College Passing Tournament.
“Last year, Matt did great,” Martinez said. “I learned a lot by just watching him. Hopefully I can step in and do as well as he did and lead this team.”
Eric Ceja emerged as the Buffaloes’ top receiver in camp. He played sparingly in 2010 but was part of the team’s biggest highlight of the season: a 26-yard touchdown catch — his first reception as a varsity player — with no time left in Manteca’s thrilling 47-42 non-league victory over traditional rival Tracy.
“We have no problem isolating Eric on somebody and letting him make something happen there,” Reis said.
Junior Eddie Smith is Manteca’s new featured back, while incumbent backup Jamontee Jones, Sierra transfer Cameron Harvey and part-time receiver Danny Gouveia could also get touches out of the backfield. Joe Trout is one of two returning starters on offense and will again man the fullback position.
“We’re counting on Eddie a lot, but when you’re a kid in that position that’s what you want,” Reis said. “He deserves the opportunity and he’s going to get a chance.
“We’re probably not going to get another Robert Ladiges and have someone run 50 times a game, but if one of these guys gets hot we’ll see.”
Reis, himself a former lineman, is especially anxious to see what the big boys in the trenches can do.
J.T. Agbulos is the lone starting offensive lineman from 2010, but Elijah Surrall also has experience. The stoutly-built 6-foot-1, 290-pound Surrall is supported up front by sophomores Issac McClain (6-2, 290) and Billy Sharmoug (6-2, 280), who are looking to make an immediate impact. Junior Daniel Clemons anchors the group at center.
“They’re good enough (to play varsity) and they fill a need,” Reis said of the sophomores. “It’s obviously still too early tell, but we think they could be very good.”
Smith and Trout will lead the 3-4 defense as the inside linebackers. Trout, the most battle-tested varsity player on the team, is looking forward to working alongside the talented junior as backfield mates on both sides of scrimmage. Anthony Hernandez and Vince Carter are the outside backers.
“It’ll be fun,” Trout said. “He’s up-and-coming and I’m forward to seeing him play. I’ve got someone as psycho as I am playing next to me.”
Senior Zach Menasco will lead a six-man rotation on the defensive line. The secondary is stacked with Anthony Lopez and Devin Cooper leading a deep corps of cornerbacks and Ryan Fox and Gouveia roaming as safeties.
While the Buffaloes have no glaring holes on their first-team units, Reis said that a lack of depth and varsity experience is concerns.
“We’re so thin we can’t have one guy get hurt,” Reis said. “We have a lot of juniors who are in the mix, which his unusual for us. Even our older guys don’t necessarily have a ton of experience.”
Overall, there are few familiar names from last year’s championship team, but there were juniors and sophomore call-ups present for its sour end to the season.
In Week 10, Manteca lost to crosstown foe East Union for the first time since 1999, and it prevented the Buffaloes from completing a perfect 10-0 run in the regular season. Then in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-III playoffs, the No. 1 seeded Buffs were trounced 55-22 by No. 16 Vanden.
It was the second straight year that Manteca had been eliminated in the opening round at home.
“It was horrible,” Trout said. “It’s worse than that, because we were defeated at our home in front of our fans and our families.
“We’ve taken that into this year as encouragement to get stuff done and work hard on and off the field.”