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MHS football is top local sports story of 13
Left tackle Isaac McClain raises his arms to the sky as Alex Laurel breaks off a 51-yard touchdown run during Manteca Highs Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title game against Sacramento on Dec. 6. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Every practice ended the same.

“Get that ring!”

The mantra of Manteca High’s 2013 varsity football team. Players would chant those same three words in unison while breaking out of huddles and wrapping up workouts. It served as a reminder that there was work still left to be done even as work for that day was finished.

The Buffaloes got that ring.

And more.

Manteca’s run to its fourth Sac-Joaquin Section championship and historic first appearance to a CIF Bowl Game heads the list of the area’s top 2013 sports stories.

The season featured milestone victories for 12th-year head coach Eric Reis, record-breaking performances and, yes, that ring.

Manteca was tested all season with some of Northern California’s top offensive talents, beginning with Central Valley tailback Ja’Quan Gardner. Manteca kicked off the season with a 47-20 win over Gardner’s Hawks in Ceres, and it was on special teams that the electrifying Alex Laurel announced himself to the world.

Laurel scored three of his four touchdowns on special-teams returns. By the end of the season, he ranked fifth in the state in overall touchdowns scored with 49.

Manteca then welcomed Wilcox of Santa Clara, an out-of-section opponent that was able to match their size and physicality. The Chargers had their own blazer out of the backfield in Delshawn Mitchell. Wilcox escaped with a 28-27 overtime victory thanks to a botched two-point conversion try by the Buffs and would later earn a bid to the Central Coast Section’s super-competitive Open Division playoff bracket.

The Buffaloes were further fueled by the defeat. They didn’t taste it again for the next 13 weeks.

They opened Valley Oak League play with Sonora, which visited for the last time as a conference rival. Manteca rolled to a 49-21 win.

Two weeks later, Reis knocked off two birds with one stone as he led the squad to a 35-20 victory over VOL kingpin Oakdale. It was the first time Reis had triumphed at The Corral, where Oakdale is nearly unbeatable. It also marked Reis’ 100th career win as head coach, all for his alma mater. He is the program’s all-time winningest coach at 109-32-2 with three section titles.

That left intra-city rival Sierra as the remaining threat to Manteca’s quest for a perfect VOL season. A Sierra win would mean a three-way share of the VOL crown.

It was a highly-anticipated matchup between two squads with differing styles; Sierra with its uptempo, pass-heavy spread offense steered by deadly-accurate QB Jake Pruitt, and Manteca with its run-first (second and third) attack anchored by hulking linemen.

Manteca clinched the outright title, 35-14.

The Buffaloes began their postseason campaign two weeks later against a familiar opponent. The rematch with Central Valley was one of the wildest games ever played on Guss Schmiedt Field, as Gardner and his Hawks were able to match Laurel and the Buffaloes blow for blow until Manteca prevailed, 69-55. Manteca had gone five straight season without a playoff win before sweating that one out.

The next three SJS Division III contests, surprisingly, were not so taxing. Manteca followed up with a 49-13 trouncing of Casa Roble, and in the semifinal it held off Inderkum 45-36 in a closer-than-it-looks triumph. Inderkum was thought of by many to be the team to beat in this bracket.

In the section championship, the Buffaloes stomped Sacramento 49-6 while slowing down receiver Damen Wheeler, who tallied video game-like numbers in the Dragons’ other playoff games.

The impressive fashion in which Manteca won helped it earn a bid for the CIF Division II Regional Championship Bowl Game. The 13-1 Buffaloes were matched with undefeated Enterprise from Redding, a North Section powerhouse spearheaded by Washington State-bound lineman Brandon Evers and hard-charging RB Isaiah Matthews.

For the second week in a row, the Buffalo faithful were joined by many other fellow Mantecans as they packed the home side of Lincoln High’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium in Stockton.

The Buffaloed rallied to a 14-0 lead, but sparked by long kickoff return Enterprise reeled off 21 unanswered points in the second quarter. All three of the Hornets’ scoring drives started in Manteca territory.

Manteca would end up falling short, 27-21, with the immediate focus of its fans, players and coaches on a disputed fumble by Laurel at the Enterprise’s 1-inch line early in the fourth quarter.

It was a sour ending to the season, for sure. If that loss still stings, the Buffaloes have the jewelry to remind them of their achievements.

2. Record season for football

Ripon Christian running back Andrew Brown mounted his own little run to history. And run he did.

Brown is his school’s all-time leading rusher by a longshot, and his 5,909 yards are believed to be a new SJS record. He accumulated 335 points this season alone, putting him at No. 2 in the state. But Brown’s crowning achievement is his touchdown total of 126, which places him No. 4 in the state all-time and No. 1 in the SJS.

Sierra’s Jake Pruitt led the most productive passing attack the city of Manteca has ever had. He recorded 3,260 yards and 38 touchdowns while completing 69.2 percent of his 360 passes.

Manteca’s championship campaign included several record-breaking efforts. Its 69-55 win over Central Valley in the opener is the highest-scoring game ever in an SJS playoff game, and the 49-6 throttling of Sacramento is a new Division III finals record for margin of victory.

The Buffaloes also had one of the state’s most prolific offenses, ranking fourth with 701 points scored (46.7 per game). That obliterates the program’s previous record. Alex Laurel’s 49 touchdowns are likely a new city record.

3. Duke comes to Manteca

Chelsea Gray, who attended Brock Elliot School and prepped at St. Mary’s of Stockton had an up-and-down 2013 for Duke University’s women’s basketball team. Mostly up.

Gray was named Co-Player of the Year of the Atlantic Coast Conference and second-team AP All-American, but the 5-foot-11 point guard suffered a season-ending dislocated kneecap in a game against Wake Forest on Feb. 17.

The Blue Devils are currently 12-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Among the team’s highlights this season is a visit to her parents James and Vickey Gray’s home in Manteca before its Nov. 10 contest at No. 9 Cal.

4. Wiggin Stadium dedication

Manteca High legend Paul Wiggin made a rare trip back to his childhood home of Lathrop on Oct. 18, when the town’s 6-year-old high school held a stadium dedication ceremony in his honor. The Spartans beat East Union 35-15 for their only win of the season.

Manteca High’s Most Outstanding Athlete of 1952, Wiggin carved out a decorated football career as both player and coach at Stanford. He went on to play for the Cleveland Browns and head coach the Kansas City Chiefs. He now resides in Minnesota and works as a pro personnel consultant for the Minnesota Vikings.

5. Sierra softball

Ranked as high as ninth by the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 national poll at one point, the Timberwolves finished No. 2 overall in the SJS and was named the Cal-Hi Sports Division III State Team of the Year.

Sierra went 25-2 in capturing its second section championship in three years. The team was buoyed by three NCAA Division-I signees: outfielder/first baseman Iyana Hughes (Virginia), pitcher Allie Walljasper (LSU) and second baseman Sommer Wilson (UC Riverside).

Walljasper, now a senior, signed her national letter of intent on Dec. 20. She was named to the All-State first team as a junior.

6. Lancers on the links

Last spring, it was East Union senior Will Brink (now playing for UC Davis) who reached the CIF State Golf Championships, becoming the first Lancer to ever do so. He finished 3-over 74 for 19th place.

Then in the fall, sophomore Brooke Riley became the first Lady Lancer to achieve the same, scoring an 81 for 33rd place.

7. McDonald’s sprint to state

A transfer from Texas, Weston Ranch sophomore John McDonald entered the 95th Annual CIF State Track & Field Championships as the No. 21 seed in the 100-meter dash and No. 14 in the 200. He ended up setting personal records in Clovis while returning home with two new medals, one for fifth place in the 100, the other for fourth in the 200.

8. Trevor Smith

Trevor Smith placed himself at the top of Ripon High’s pantheon of grappling giants last winter.

After winning Trans-Valley League and SJS Division V titles, he took second in the SJS Masters and third at the CIF State Championships in the 195-pound division. Smith is only the second wrestler in school history to place at state twice.

9. All-American Andie

In one week (Nov. 7-14), happy-go-lucky volleyball player Andie Shelton was named an Under Armour Second Team All-American, signed her letter of intent to compete for hometown university Pacific and played her final match for Ripon Christian in a loss to Hilmar in the SJS Division IV quarterfinals.

Shelton goes out as a two-time section champion and three-time All-Area MVP.

10. Cougars’ cardiac kids

The Weston Ranch boys soccer team made its ride to the program’s first postseason appearance an exciting one, going 5-0-2 over the second of Valley Oak League play including a 4-4 draw in the finale with Sierra, which needed a win to advance instead of the Cougars.

The Ranch went on to win two heart-stopping playoff games via penalty-kick shootouts and lost in the SJS Division IV championship, 3-2.

11. Former Sierra High standout Nigel Malone earned the E. Jack Spaulding Award for Most Outstanding Defensive Player of the 88th Annual East-West Shrine Game and was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award that goes to the nation’s top NCAA defensive back.

12. Eleven-year-old motocross standout Aiden Tijero of Ripon had a big summer on his 65 cc dirt bike, which he rode to first-place finishes in the Loretta Lynn Amateur National Championship and FIM Junior Motocross World Championships in Jinin, Czech Republic.

13. After helping St. Mary’s of Stockton earn state championships, Courtney Range (now at Cal) decided to keep her rare talents in town and play for Manteca High her senior year. The 6-foot-2 wing led the Buffaloes to a third straight VOL title. Her averages were otherworldly: 20.1 points, 19.6 rebounds, 3.6 blocks.

14. Manteca siblings Garret and Lauren Fisher, both away from home for college, earned top-10 finishes in the Reebok CrossFit Games down in Carson last August. Ryan impressively placed fifth in the men’s division, while Lauren helped CrossFit Invictus of San Diego take seventh in team competition.

15. Heated rivals, the Valley Oak League’s co-champion Sierra and Weston Ranch boys basketball teams, both reached a level of postseason success. Sierra appeared in its second straight SJS Division III title game, while Weston Ranch won its first-ever NorCal contest.

16. The Ripon girls basketball stunned Modesto Christian, which had a 98-game TVL winning streak snapped, to force a two-way share of the league championship.

17. One of Manteca High’s all-time best distance runners, Harleen Pabla overcame multiple surgeries to repair a collapsed lung last spring and qualified for her third state berth in the fall.

18. On June 24, mixed-martial arts legend Royce Gracie visited Manteca and held a two-hour seminar at Cortez Martial Arts Academy.

19. Ripon Christian’s girls soccer and football teams both advanced to SJS championship games for the first time, and both lost to Bradshaw Christian.

20. Ripon High’s boys and girls golf teams both earned SJS Division V championships this year. The Ripon Christian boys also captured a blue banner in Division VI.