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Manteca charges out to early lead in Valley Oak League
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It appears to be a two-school race for the Valley Oak League’s varsity boys and girls titles.

And reigning champion Manteca is in the lead.

The Buffaloes opened the three-meet season with a dominating performance at Frogtown. The boys team beat second-place Sierra, which nipped Manteca in the VOL finale last season to force a two-way share of the championship. Manteca’s girls outpointed the Timberwolves, 19-38.

The first two cluster meets are scored as duals, while the third is run under an invitational-style format. It was an outstanding start for the Buffs, who were not at full strength.

“My (varsity boys) team was vulnerable today because we had four of them working through injuries,” Manteca coach Rick Cuevas said. “Sierra has got a good team. We’re going to continue to work hard because we don’t want the same thing that happened last year.”

Sierra’s Josh Spooner was the No. 1 overall finisher in 16 minutes, 53 seconds, but Manteca had four runners ahead of the No. 2 Timberwolf. Brandon Galan (17:31) took second overall for the Buffaloes and was followed by Marcus Avila (fourth), Brett Kovacs (fifth), Brian Balcita (sixth) and Hector Patron (11th).

Cuevas was especially impressed by Kovacs, the VOL’s frosh-soph individual champ a year ago who is making a splash as a sophomore at the varsity level. Other noteworthy boys from the area were Weston Ranch’s Brendon Curtright (third) and Sierra’s Aaron Mackey (eighth) and Garet Stone (ninth).

Francesca Loayza of Kimball topped all girls competitors in 19:51, but Manteca’s up-and-coming freshman, Lejla Pepic (20:03), let her presence be known as the runner-up.  Haley Silva placed third for Sierra, and Weston Ranch’s Fattima Momini took fifth.

“When I first saw her run I told her she was going to be something else. And she proved it today,” Cuevas said of Pepic.

“It’s been a while since I have had a girls team like this,” he added. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a girls team like this.”

Sophomore Emma Holbrook aided Manteca’s cause with a sixth-place finish. That’s two Buffalo underclassmen who finished ahead of senior Harleen Pabla, The Bulletin’s two-time All-Area Cross Country Girls Runner of the Year. She is returning to form after undergoing lung surgery.

Blake Lamoreaux (ninth) and Ariana Avina (10th) also scored for Manteca. Kayle Lecce (eighth) of East Union also cracked the top 10.

In the lower levels, Manteca’s junior varsity team was edged out by Oakdale, 27-30 for the top finish. Sierra’s Ashley Elliott was the individual winner. Manteca’s Juanzin Espejel won the JV boys race.

Weston Ranch dominated the frosh-soph boys event in which the top four placers were Cougars. Alex Araquel spearheaded the charge. Iris Carillo, also of Weston Ranch, took first in frosh-soph girls.