Kaley Miller had a tough act to follow but was eager to carve out her own legacy with Manteca's girls soccer team.
Although her career did not go exactly as envisioned, she capped it off with a postseason run for the ages and has been named the Manteca Bulletin All-Area MVP.
“She had a pretty good year,” Manteca coach Justin Coenenberg said, “but what she did in the playoffs was remarkable.”
After a runner-up finish in Valley Oak League play, when four-time champion Sierra dealt the Buffaloes (21-3-4) their only two losses of the regular season, they went on to claim the program's second Sac-Joaquin Section Division III crown. They have their feisty fourth-year forward to thank. That's because Miller had a part in nine of their 10 goals in the section playoffs, scoring seven and assisting two. She ended with 24 goals and 11 assists in her final season as a Buffalo.
“Everyone contributed to that, but she definitely put us on her back,” Coenenberg said. “She scored when we needed her the most.”
It was all in all a triumphant finish to an up-and-down career despite the two bitter losses to rival Sierra and the frustrating season-ending 2-0 defeat to Acalanes in the Buffaloes' first-ever appearance in the California Interscholastic Federation NorCal Regionals.
Regardless of the setbacks, from this season and in seasons past, going away as a section champion trumps it all. Netting the game-winner in the 2-1 victory over Christian Brothers made it all the sweeter.
“It was all worth it,” Miller said. “That's one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life. There is not a word to describe how excited the team and I were, but it's one of those moments we wish we could replay over and over again. I just felt like I achieved one of my biggest goals in my soccer career.”
The Miller family has a history of clutch plays for Manteca.
In 2016, her sister Ashlee, the Buffaloes' then-senior goalkeeper, came up with the big save in a penalty-kick shootout that clinched their SJS title after they had lost in the final round the previous two seasons. Leah Manuleleua scored Manteca's lone goal in regulation, and her 116 career tallies remains as the program's all-time record.
The younger Miller aimed to continue the streak of final-round appearances while celebrating her own personal milestones, highlights and championships along the way. She had hoped that scoring record would one day be hers, and it appeared to be attainable after putting away 34 as a sophomore.
Injuries and graduation turnover conspired against her. She was slowed by a sprained ankle at the end of her sophomore year, and the the start of her junior year was delayed by a pulled groin. The speed she flashed for much of her first two seasons was not there, and she was limited to 14 goals and five assists. The youth-laden Buffs, who had no seniors, went 9-9-5 and was knocked out of the second round of the playoffs a third straight year.
“She never fully recovered from that groin injury her junior year,” Coenenberg said. “She wasn't herself, and it was tough on her mentally.”
With the help of a freshman phenom and a clean bill of health, Kaley got her groove back in 2020.
Cameron Silva formed a dazzling partnership with Miller on the attacking third, and several other returners emerged to give Manteca the scoring punch it sorely lacked a season ago. Silva was voted the All-VOL MVP.
It was Miller's show in the postseason, however.
She started with a hat trick in a 3-1 win over Pioneer, then had a goal and an assist both in the second half as the Buffs ousted cross-town foe East Union to halt their string of second-round defeats.
“We just kept telling ourselves we can't be that team that just gets to the second round,” Miller said. “A lot of girls were saying, 'We're going to do this for you, Kaley, this is our year,' Every one was 100 percent on board.”
Manteca's most thrilling win came in the semifinals. The Buffaloes trailed 1-0 at halftime against second-seeded host El Capitan, which dominated the opening 40 minutes as the visitors struggled with less-than-ideal field conditions.
Miller gave Manteca a needed lift with a goal 2 minutes into the second half, but the Buffs were unable to net the winning goal in regulation and nearly paid for it after the Gauchos were awarded a late penalty kick.
The attempt hit the cross bar.
“That one PK could have changed everything, and it was a real motivator,” Miller said. “That kind of told us we're in this for a reason, and and the second we got into overtime we just turned it on.
“We felt that we were meant to go to the section final.”
Miller and the Buffs took advantage of the opportunity, putting them ahead for good early in extra time before laying off a negative ball to Kaylee Gines for the insurance goal.
The second-half heroics continued onto the title game, where a talented Christian Brothers side — which had just knocked off top-seeded Sierra in the semifinals — pressed from the opening whistle and built a 1-0 halftime lead.
Silva knotted it early, and in the 76th minute Jordyn Silva — Cameron's older sister — set up Miller's go-ahead 1-v-1.
Miller fell well short of Manuleleua's scoring record, but her career totals — 84 goals, 32 assists — still stack up well against other standouts to come out of the city.
“I'm just happy I got to go out a section champ,” she said. “I was able to fulfill my ultimate high school soccer goal. It was exciting getting to play for Coach Coenenberg and with a bunch of different girls. It was the best four years of my life and I can't wait to see what the future holds.”
Miller said she has turned out several offers from four-year universities, opting instead to play for Delta College — one of the top JUCO programs in California — with hopes of opening herself up to a wider range of choices down the road.
Manteca, meanwhile, will have to move on without its top scorer and leader.
“Her speed is irreplaceable — I've never had a player that explosive,” Coenenberg said. “One thing about Kaley is that I've never said she doesn't play very hard. Whether she was hurt, sick or whatever the circumstances she always gave everything she had every single game.
“We'll definitely miss her presence. She's a person who makes things fun in the locker room, and I'm confident she's going to go on and do great things.”
MVP: Kaley Miller, Manteca, Sr., forward
Offensive POY: Tiana Cello, Sierra, Jr.
Midfielder of the Year: Cameron Silva, Manteca, Fr.
Defensive POY: Kailey Tijero, Ripon, Jr.
Devaney Dougherty, Ripon, Jr.
Jenna Villanueva, Sierra, Jr.
Juliana Rodríguez, Sierra, So.
Taylor, McMahon, East Union, Jr.
Ariana Scholten, Ripon, Jr.
Hailey Sims, East Union, Jr.
Caitlynn Wong, Manteca, So.
Mia Treacy, Manteca, Jr.
Kirsi Vander Meulen, Ripon Christian, Sr.
Zoe Willson, Sierra, So.
Michaela Bitle, Sierra, Sr.