Marcus Montano has scored bending free kicks at the final whistle to win soccer games.
He’s boomed field goals and extra points for a Sac-Joaquin Section championship football team, and he’s even won a Valley Oak League title in the long jump.
The Manteca senior thrives in pressure situations — “It’s what defines me as a player,” he says — and his impressive athletic resume bears witness to that.
On the hardwood, though, the senior has faced a different kind of pressure.
For the fifth-seeded Buffaloes, who host No. 12 Lincoln of Lincoln tonight in the first round of the Division III tournament, Montano hasn’t been asked to be the stat star.
Coach Brett Lewis simply needed him to be the leader; the alpha male in a locker room teeming with juniors.
The role has come naturally to Montano, who has nine varsity seasons under his belt between soccer (four), football (three) and basketball (two).
“He’s definitely been our senior staple, for sure, with a lot of youth around him,” said Lewis, Manteca’s first-year coach.
Montano has used the Buffaloes’ inexperience as a platform for motivation, helping to cultivate a me-against-the-world attitude.
Inside the locker room, the feeling is that few gave the Buffaloes much of chance to compete in the Valley Oak League, where four-time defending champion Sierra boasted four returning starters.
Manteca (20-6) not only competed, but kept the VOL race alive with three games to go. The Buffaloes finished on the Timberwolves’ heels for the second straight season and enter the postseason a matchup nightmare at the 5 seed.
“It’s one of those things that was proven by hard work. Going into the season, knowing the majority of the team was (juniors), there were doubts about our experience,” Montano said. “We have something to prove. The whole season we battled through everything and I think we got rewarded for everything.”
The Buffaloes headline an action-packed opening night for area teams.
Across town, No. 3 Sierra hosts No. 14 Fairfield in their D-III opener, while No. 9 Weston Ranch (No. 9 in D-III) and Ripon (No. 13 in Division IV) look to extend their seasons on the road.
By now, the Fighting Zebras should know plenty about Manteca’s top guns — 6-foot-8 center Anand Hundal, one of the state’s top shot blockers; and super sophomore Tydus Verhoeven, a versatile 6-foot-6 guard.
But Montano, with his athleticism and killer instinct, gives the Buffalos’ a capable third option.
Even that has come as a surprise to the coaching staff, who openly wondered if the seldom-used junior could handle the spotlight’s heat.
“At one point during the summer and offseason, we didn’t know what we’d get from him,” Lewis said. “We didn’t know if he’d focus on other sports. You know, last year, his role was pretty limited. We didn’t know if he’d be willing to accept a bigger role. He’s definitely answered those calls.”
Montano’s rapid development on the court flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
It’s true, he spent most of his junior season at the back end of then-coach David Asuncion’s rotation, yearning for playing time and a chance to contribute. Then, he missed all of Lewis’ fall workouts because of his commitments to the varsity football and soccer teams.
Still, he’s been an integral part of the Buffaloes’ success, captaining a program seeking its first Sac-Joaquin Section title since 1987.
“I wasn’t used to coming off the bench. It was something different, but I knew what my role was for that team. It wasn’t to carry the team, so I stuck with it,” Montano said. “I used it as motivation to keep working. All season long, I didn’t want to go back (to the bench). I had something to prove.”
Montano ranks second on the team in scoring (9.8 points) and assists (2.0) and first in 3-point field goals (42). He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, including a staggering 40 percent from beyond the arc.
More importantly, he’s become a stone-cold assassin in crunch time, scoring a bulk of his points in the fourth quarter and beyond.
His layup at the buzzer to beat Central Catholic in overtime on Jan. 15 opened a lot of eyes.
“He’s hit a lot of big shots. ... I attribute that to football. He’s been in a lot of big situations with his kicking,” Lewis said. “Pressure situations, they don’t get to him. He handles them well.”
Montano asked Lewis for that last shot against the Raiders. He had shaken off a cold start to score 12 points in the fourth quarter and overtime period.
He felt like there were two more left in his shooting hand.
He was right.
“Kids always dream of things like that ... hitting the big shots,” Montano said. “I was in the zone that night and I told coach I wanted the ball. I was feeling good that night.”
Lewis is hoping Montano can deliver again in the playoffs, where potential rematches with Weston Ranch and Sierra loom in the semifinal and final rounds, respectively.
Knowing the wear and tear his body has taken since the start of August, Lewis and his staff used the time off in between games to let Montano rest.
“We’ve done a lot with these seven days off to give him the rest his legs need,” Lewis said, “to give us what we need to make a little run right now. Hopefully, he can knock down some more shots for us.”
Montano, an All-Area performer in soccer and football, has never shied from the moment, whether it was dribbling (with his feet), kicking or vaulting his body through the air.
His supreme confidence in pressure situations, he says, is shaped by his failures.
“Looking back at everything I wasn’t able to accomplish, all of that builds up inside of me. I use it for motivation,” he said. “I’ve felt accomplishment and failure, and I love the feeling of accomplishment. (Failure) is something I don’t ever want to feel again.”