Manteca head coach Justin Coenenberg tried to find fault in his team at halftime of the Buffaloes’ Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinal with visiting Vista del Lago of Folsom.
“It was a 0-0 game and we were kind of nitpicking trying to find things that we could improve, but for the most part we were happy with the way we were playing,” Coenenberg said.
He was even happier with the result: a one-sided 3-0 victory that sends the top-seeded Buffaloes to a third consecutive section championship game.
They’re hoping the third time’s the charm after coming up short in the Division III and IV finals the past two seasons. Manteca (24-2-1) gets No. 2 Rio Americano (13-4-3), which routed Ponderosa 5-1 in the other semifinal. Rio Americano went 1-0-1 against Vista del Lago (16-5-2) en route to winning the Capital Athletic League championship.
The Division III championship takes place Saturday at Lincoln of Stockton. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.
“It’s going to take an effort like this today (to get over the hump),” Coenenberg said. “This was by far our best team effort.”
Leah Manuleleua had a hand in all three goals scored, scoring two of them in the 42nd and 76th minutes to run her season total to 44. She owns the school record with 115 career goals.
“Being there in the end and having this experience and not being successful, we’ve all had more motivation and we all had the same goal at the beginning of the year, and it was to get back to sections,” Manuleleua said. “Now that we’re in this position, hopefully we can capitalize on this opportunity more than we have in the past.”
Neither team had great opportunities in the first half, but Manuleleua made the first one count early in the second.
After winning the ball near midfield off keeper Ashlee Miller’s punt, she carried it toward the 18-yard line with intentions of setting up a teammate. With no defenders pressuring her, Manuleleua opted to take a crack from about 25 yards out, and her shot went off the finger tips of Eagles goalie Riley Terrando (seven saves) before settling into the back of the net.
“I was waiting for someone to pressure me to give me a lane to feed it to one of the forwards or midfielders,” Manuleleua said. “They didn’t, so I was like, ‘Might as well take it.’”
The Buffaloes owned the second half from there but didn’t strike again until the 71st minute when Kaitlynn Funsch cashed in on a breakaway. Manuleleua led the counter-attack and delivered a perfect through ball to Madison Burch, whose initial shot was deflected away by the diving Terrando. Funsch was unaccounted for when she collected the ball for the open-net shot.
Manuleleua punctuated Manteca’s dominant second half just 5 minutes later on a give-and-go feed from Lejla Pepic. Typically an attacking midfielder, Pepic was moved to the right wing at the start of the second half.
“I think that really worked well for us,” Coenenberg said. “We feel like we can keep our shape a little bit better with Burch and Ivy (Benson) there at offensive mid, and by moving Pepic we’re able to use her speed on the outside.”
Miller (three saves) and the defense — Jasmine Basuil, Sandra De La Riva, Natalia Duran and Alexa Mayen — recorded their fifth straight shutout and put the clamps on outstanding freshman Mekaylla White, Vista’s scoring leader with 15 goals. The Eagles were limited to one attempt in the second half and were outshot 17-5. Manteca also had a 6-0 advantage on corner kicks.
“We just got outplayed, plain and simple,” Vista del Lago coach Jaimy McLaughlin said. “They worked harder than we did. They worked as a team, we didn’t. We didn’t play our game. They have a good team and they did what they had to do to win the game.”