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Manteca earns top seed for Division III playoffs
Midfielders Ricardo Marin of Manteca High, left, and Ripons Chasen Martinsen battle for possession during a nonleague match at Guss Schmiedt Field on Aug. 29. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO

The Valley Oak League co-champions are hosting first-round playoff games on Thursday, but there is no chance of them meeting again for the remainder of the season.

That’s because under the new Sac-Joaquin Section postseason format, the 76 qualifiers are placed in a giant pool and separated by seven enrollment-based divisions. The Division-I and Division-II brackets, which consists of the largest qualifying schools, each go 16 teams deep. There are 12 in Division III, with the top-four seeded teams awarded first-round byes, and eight apiece in Divisions IV-VII.

It’s a drastic change from the old format in which, in recent years, the top three teams from three leagues would make up the Division IV and V brackets that include local teams. Now, we’ll see pairings never before seen in the postseason.

Final-round contests are scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 10 and will be played either at Lincoln High in Stockton or Cosumnes Oaks in Elk Grove. All games leading up to the finals start at 3 p.m.

Manteca High (18-2-3) shares its first VOL crown since 2007 with crosstown rival Sierra (13-3-4), but they are now chasing two different titles.

The Buffaloes of Manteca are the highest-seeded squad among four area playoff teams, earning the No. 1 spot in the competitive Division-III bracket. They will open up with the winner of today’s Vanden-Pioneer match on Thursday. Vanden (10-4-4) is the runner-up of the Solano County Athletic Conference, while Pioneer is the second-place club out of the Tri-County Conference.

Rio Americano (10-3-7), champion of the Capital Athletic League, is the No. 2 seed, and SCAC champ Benicia (16-2-2) is No. 3.

Two of the top teams in this bracket hail from the Western Athletic Conference, Manteca’s 2-1 nonleague victories over both weighed heavily into its placement. Third-seeded Patterson went 10-1-1 to win the always-competitive WAC, while ultra-talented Central Valley (21-2-2) is a likely semifinal opponent for the Buffaloes should they get to that point.

Since Sierra lost its head-to-head series with Manteca during the regular season, it did not get a favorable top-two seed in Division IV. The top spots went to Vista del Lago (11-2-2) of the Sierra Valley Conference and Placer (11-3-4) of the Pioneer Valley League, respectively.

If Sierra gets past Colfax (11-3-4), which took third in the PVL, it gets the winner of Placer and No. 7 Galt (15-3-1) — an intriguing first-round contest.

Ripon (10-9) gets a tough first-round draw in Division V, as it takes on Golden Empire League champ West Campus (17-2-2) of Sacramento on the road. The eight-team bracket is loaded with six league champions, including the Trans-Valley League’s Riverbank. West Campus was the Division V runner-up in the 2011 playoffs.

Ripon Christian (12-4-4) will make its first postseason appearance in eight years, and as the No. 5 seed in Division VII the Knights will head to Antelope to face No. 2 Global Youth Charter (7-5-2).

Ripon Christian may have the best shot at capturing a section banner among area teams. Despite its seed and likely semifinal showdown with No. 1 Sacramento Country Day (14-2) — which has reached the Division VII finals four out of the last six years and won two of them — RC is arguably the most battle-tested team that played in a tougher league than the rest of the field. Second-seeded Vacaville Christian (8-7-2), a Division VI finalist a year ago, is another team to look out for.