Following Wednesday’s night practice at Guss Schmiedt Field, Manteca High head coach Eric Reis told his players they’ll be playing their ninth game on their home turf this Saturday when then the Buffaloes host St. Francis of Mountain View for the CIF Northern California Division II-A Regional Championship Bowl Game.
Yes, nine games. At home.
The regular season comprises of 10 games over 11 weeks in the Sac-Joaquin Section.
“To play nine games at home is pretty crazy,” Reis said. “In modern football, to have your last football game (at home) in Week 14 is the pinnacle. That’s obviously real special.”
Senior quarterback Gino Campiotti relishes the opportunity to perform in front of the home crowd. At halftime of the Buffaloes’ 43-38 SJS Division III semifinal win over Christian Brothers, he delivered a speech directed at his fellow seniors, imploring that they not lose their final game at Guss Schmiedt Field.
Turns out he could have saved it for Saturday.
The winner plays for a state title Dec. 16 at Sacramento State against the SoCal Division II-A champion — Aquinas (14-0) of San Bernardino or Grace Brethren (12-2) of Simi Valley.
“To be able to step foot out here again after telling them it’s our last game here, it’s awesome,” he said. “I’m going to cherish this field forever.”
Manteca is making its third NorCal Bowl Game appearance but seeks its first win at this level after losing to Enterprise in 2013 and Menlo-Atherton in 2016.
St. Francis will play its second NorCal Bowl Game after beating Pleasant Valley 29-7 in the 2015 Division II-A state playoffs. The Lancers lost to Citrus Hill of Perris 23-20 in the final.
Here’s a closer look at the Saturday night showdown:
uVALLEY CHRISTIAN CONNECTION: Menlo-Atherton ran roughshod over the Buffaloes in the Division III-AA NorCal Bowl Game last season, 49-21. The Bears were anchored by a handful of NCAA Division I prospects such as running back Jordan Mims (now starring at Fresno State), who rushed for 312 yards and four touchdowns.
“Menlo last year was just better than us — flat out better than us,” Campiotti said. “We probably beat them one out of 10 times. It was a rough matchup.”
Manteca hadn’t seen that kind of size and speed all season. And so, with much of his core group of standouts returning, Reis decided up the ante for 2017.
Enter Valley Christian, a San Jose powerhouse from the Central Coast Section’s powerful West Catholic Athletic League. Manteca held on for a 22-20 victory after VC missed a last-second field goal at Guss Schmiedt Field. The Buffaloes led 22-7 late in the first half.
The season opener is one of Manteca’s benchmark moments of the season, and they’re coming off a 34-17 win over Valley Oak League rival Oakdale in the SJS Division III championship. Oakdale downed Manteca 36-15 during the regular season.
St. Francis is quite familiar with Valley Christian, which defeated the Lancers 28-21 in WCAL play. St. Francis settled for third place in league, as did Manteca in the VOL.
St. Francis went on to roll into the CCS Open Division II title game and had a late comeback fall short in a 31-30 loss to Serra, yet another WCAL foe.
Campiotti isn’t looking too much into the differing results against Valley Christian.
“Teams change week by week,” he said. “We got worked by Oakdale and then we turned that around and kind of handed it to them. Football changes. They could be a completely different team than they were in that Valley Christian game. I’m looking at right now.”
Manteca, Valley Christian and St. Francis are slotted in the No. 34, 36 and 37 spots in the Cal-Hi Sports top-50 state rankings.
uA FAMILIAR LOOK: From American Canyon’s triple option to Christian Brothers’ high-flying spread and finally Oakdale’s explosive Wing-T, Manteca’s defense has had its hands full the past three weeks.
The Buffaloes’ next opponent operates out of the I-formation similar to that of VOL rival Central Catholic’s.
“The team that definitely prepared us for this game is Central Catholic,” Reis said. “Central runs a similar offense to these guys and (Dauson) Booker is an elite running back. They run a lot of double tight (ends) and that’s what we’ll see this week also.”
Booker bulled his way to 228 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the 31-14 win over the Buffaloes back on Sept. 22. St. Francis boasts a similar tailback in 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior Darrell Page, who is around the 2,000-yard mark with 21 touchdowns on the season after piling up 220 and two on 25 carries against Serra.
“He has speed to break one but he also has the power in between the tackles,” Manteca linebacker Ferrin Manuleleua said. “He’s hard to take down and can hit the home run, too. We just have to get good push from our d-line and rally to the ball and gang tackle because he’s not easy to bring down.”
The Lancers can also air it out if need be with Reed Vettel behind center. Evan Williams caught seven of his passes for 77 yards and two scores in the CCS Open Division II final game.
uFORMIDABLE FRONT: It all starts in the trenches for St. Francis, on both sides of scrimmage.
Tyler Manoa, a mammoth 6-5, 285-pound left guard and defensive tackle, is a U.S. Army All-American who is being heavily recruited by Division I schools on the West Coast.
Then there’s 6-5, 260-pound right tackle Nikko Pohahau, 5-11, 305-pound sophomore DT Afa Sanft, 6-2, 280-pound left tackle Mose Vavao and 6-4, 240-pound junior tight end/outside linebacker Joshua Pakola who has a four-star rating by Rivals.
“Their (defensive) front seven is so dynamic,” Reis said. “It’s a little different from Valley Christian. Valley Christian’s back end had all the D-I dudes and their front was still pretty good, but with these guys their front seven is the strength of their team, for sure.”
uFAMILY FEUD: This won’t be a typical Saturday reunion between the Pakolas and Manuleleuas. The standout players from both families are second cousins.
Ferrin Manuleleua said he and Joshua Pakola have been following each other’s careers the past few seasons and never thought there would be a chance of them going head-to-head on the football field until his Buffaloes got their revenge against Oakdale last week.
When the regional pairings were released on Sunday, the two immediately began trading text messages.
“He was super juiced and I was excited because I’ve never got to play one of my relatives like that,” Manuleleua said. “It’s cool, because I have family from everywhere coming to watch us play. It will be a good opportunity to play against my cousin.”
And there should be ample opportunities for the two to get reacquainted. Manuleleua also plays both ways, starting at inside linebacker while getting snaps at fullback in recent postseason contests.
uCARRYING VOL TORCH: The CCS has the WCAL. The Sierra Foothill League, which has two NorCal qualifiers in Folsom and Granite Bay, is king in the SJS.
The VOL has surely made its case as a top conference in recent years, which is impressive considering it’s comprised of seven medium-sized public schools and one small parochial school.
Manteca remains as the last team still standing in the southern half of the SJS, and this marks the sixth straight year that the VOL is represented in a regional bowl game. Oakdale (2016), Central Catholic (2014, 2015) and Sierra (2015) have all captured state titles in that span.
“Here we are a VOL school playing D-III (in the SJS playoffs), and we’re going up against big-time Bay Area football,” Reis said. “It’s a pretty proud moment for the program to think that this is where we’ve gotten to. (Oakdale coach Trent Merzon) and I were talking about this also. Oakdale got to play (SFL and SJS Division I champion) Folsom this year. The VOL has come so far. We’re now some of the better NorCal teams around.”