Manteca started strong, stumbled midway through and finished with a bang.
The Buffaloes’ first-ever appearance in the CIF State Division III Championships encapsulated their historic season perfectly.
They warded off Southern California’s D3 champion, Ayala of Chino Hills, 60-51 at Sleep Train Arena on Thursday after starting out on an 8-0 run and nearly blowing what was once a 17-point lead in the second half.
Manteca showed its potential to achieve greatness at the start of the season, beginning with a nine-game winning streak capped by a win over highly-ranked Freedom of Oakley. The Buffs later topped Berkeley 76-74 in a double-overtime thriller during the MaxPreps MLK Classic at Cal’s Haas Pavilion. Berkeley went on to win the NorCal Division I title.
But Manteca also had its share of disappointments, which included runner-up finishes in the Valley Oak League and Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs.
“That’s just the roller coaster we’ve been on all year,” Manteca coach Brett Lewis said. “Luckily we were wearing our seat belts before falling apart.
“It’s been a good ride,” he added.
The ride began with a promise from Kenny Wooten, whose near triple-double (26 points, 18 rebounds, nine blocks) lifted the Buffaloes to victory on the big stage.
The 6-foot-9 transfer from Stagg was forced to sit out his entire junior season, which ended with back-to-back losses to Weston Ranch in the Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals and at Foothill of Palo Cedro in the NorCal opener.
Wooten promised his teammates a section title, and when Manteca got its chance former Buffaloes guard Marcus Montano sent them a reminder over social media.
“I think all of us forgot about it, and when we came to the section game Marcus tweeted it out and reminded us about it,” Lewis said. “It was huge for us to come here a second time and have Kenny follow through on his word.”
The 6-foot-9, Nevada-bound Wooten didn’t deliver the section title as promised, though he did all he could (26 points, 15 rebounds, four blocks) in the 69-57 loss to rival Weston Ranch.
“I guess I got them something more,” Wooten said.
And it may have not happened without the sting of defeat.
More like defeats.
In truth, Weston Ranch has owned the Buffaloes, winning four straight against them including two in the regular season that helped the Cougars garner the VOL championship. Other losses were to cross-town rival Sierra, which placed fourth in league, and double-digit setbacks against Open Division NorCal semifinalist Modesto Christian and Centennial from Bakersfield.
“We came together as a family,” Tydus Verhoeven said. “Those losses really humbled us. They hurt a lot but as a team we came together. We understood that our roles were set and we had to come together because we wanted to fulfill the potential of this team.”
Mission accomplished, despite the few road bumps.
Included was a season-ending knee injury to Tyler Graves-Kelso in the Berkley game. The 6-foot power forward was Manteca’s sparkplug off the bench, but sophomore call-up Justin Kakala, all 6-4, 260 pounds of him, filled his role admirably late in the season.
Lewis also tweaked the starting lineup after the Buffaloes’ second league loss to Weston Ranch. Angel Perez, a starter last year, performed his task as defensive stopper masterfully down the stretch and even outscored Cal State Fullerton-bound Austen Awosika 7-2 in the state finals.
“We need guys like that to be successful,” Lewis said.
And a successful team usually has its stars.
There’s Wooten, the wildly athletic forward heading to Nevada. It was his exciting tomahawk jam that helped close the show in grand fashion on Thursday.
Verhoeven, his cousin, showed off his all-around skill set for a 6-8 wing in the state finale, finishing with 11 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
Anand Hundal, a 6-9 center, was among the state’s leading shot blockers his junior year, and with his soft touch from 15 feet in opposing teams prioritized its defense in stopping the Buffaloes’ leading scorer.
Dwight Young, at 5-11, is the smallest of the bunch, but time and again he shot Manteca out of jams with his deadly accuracy from beyond the 3-point arc and on the free-throw line.
And it’s perhaps fitting that Lewis and his coaching staff has roots in other parts of Manteca Unified territory. It is those connections that helped rivals rally behind these Buffaloes.
“I feel that this team has really brought our community and our school together,” Lewis said. “The amount of people from other schools that have reached out to us was huge. It just showed me that the support, that our battle cry ‘For the City’ was true. They had our backs and we did it for them.”