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Buffaloes charged up for opener, title defense
Luis Reyes gets to the edge with help from fullback Darrion Kitson. - photo by HIME ROMERO/ The Bulletin

The Manteca High football team has already made headlines this offseason for its inclusion in the Levi’s Stadium Friday Night Lights doubleheader on Aug. 29.

As if the Buffaloes needed any more incentive.

Head coach Eric Reis said there have been no signs of letting down after last year’s senior-dominated team lifted the program to historic heights. The Buffaloes captured their fourth Sac-Joaquin Section championship in dominant fashion last fall and earned a spot in the CIF Division II Regional Bowl Game.

“It (the invitation to the Levi’s Stadium event) has definitely put a lot more urgency in camp knowing that they’ll get to play on that grand stage in week zero, which is coming up pretty quickly,” Reis said. “The kids want to build upon the legacy that last year’s team left behind, not bring it down.”

The biggest question mark — and we do mean big — heading into the offseason was on the offensive line. While there is expected to be no shortage of skill players who led a talented class of juniors that went 10-0 at the sophomore level, how are these Buffaloes going to replace the hefty honchos of years past?

Gone are 300-pound linemen Joe Eavenson, Isaac McClain and Billy Sharmoug, all NCAA Division II athletes, but seniors Alex Cardwell, Darrell Clemons and Steven Martinez impressed their coaches over the summer. Two-way starter Chase McKee (inside linebacker) takes over for Valenti Saavedra at center. They got a chance to strut their stuff at the Delta College Lineman Challenge in which teams of athletes compete in seven different events.

The noobies won.

“It built some confidence and let people know that these kids are pretty good, too,” Reis said. “We lost every single starting offensive lineman, and these guys we have now got beat up by them all last year. They learned a lot from them, and when they got their chance they did well at the camp.”

Manteca hosted a five-team camp that included familiar preseason foes Ripon and Atwater along with Grace Davis of Modesto and Galt’s Liberty Ranch. Ripon and Atwater have been part of Manteca’s preseason jamboree in recent seasons, and longtime Valley Oak League rival Sonora — which enters its first year in the Mother Lode League — has been included in this year’s four-way scrimmage.

In the camp, Manteca had the opportunity to go head on with varying styles of play and its coaches were satisfied with the results.

“They gave us different challenges, and during a football season that’s what you’ll see,” Reis said. “Our thing was, who can really play and who just looks good in shorts?”

Also at Delta was its annual 7-on-7 passing tournament, which gave junior quarterback Dakarai Charles a chance to shine. Manteca also went head-to-head with St. Mary’s, Franklin and Grace Davis in separate sessions this summer.

“Surprisingly, we did pretty well at Delta,” Reis said, adding that the Buffaloes beat Division I powers Tracy and Franklin of Elk Grove while losing to Lincoln of Stockton. “We’ve never been a team that hangs our hat on 7-on-7s because we like the run the football.”

Charles can run it, too. With returners Hector Soto and Lechi Nkwocha having good moments at Manteca’s full-contact camp, Charles was able to break several long runs in 11-on-11 scrimmages all week.

“We’re still going to run power-I, but we’ll do so in different ways,” Reis said. “We tweaked the offense and adjusted to the players we have. Dakarai had a good summer of throwing the football but also showed he can be a threat on the run.”