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State champs start season shorthanded as football team chases titles of their own
Manteca High head coach Brett Lewis, left, has a chat with his players on the midcourt circle at Winter Gymnasium before practice on Wednesday. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Brett Lewis could tell something was a little off with Jorge Cedano, a sophomore who could play a key role on Manteca’s defending CIF State Division III championship basketball team.

“At practice I asked him if he was tired and he just kind of nodded,” Lewis said Tuesday. “I feel bad for the kid.”

It’s the price one must pay for the success of two teams on campus.

Cedano is one of seven Buffaloes suiting up — in helmets, pads and cleats instead of tank tops and high tops — for tonight’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV football title game against Placer. Manteca (11-1) is a big favorite to win and earn a berth to a CIF State Regional Bowl Game.

While Cedano is pulling double duty, the likes of Gino Campiotti, Matt Ender, Justin Kakala, Kyle Rachels, Cameron Reis and Jacob Tolbert are focused solely on the grid iron. Ender and the burly 6-foot-4 Kakala provided pivotal minutes off the bench as sophomores during the Buffaloes’ state championship run last year. Campiotti, Rachels and Cedano, meanwhile, helped lead the sophomore squad to a Valley Oak League title.

“We have to play with what we have,” sharpshooting senior Dwight Young said. “We’re just working hard every day in practice. Right now I have to step up as a leader being a senior. I’m excited with what we have. I think we’re going to be fine until the rest of the guys show up.”

Reinforcements may not arrive for a while. Should the football team win tonight, it’s guaranteed at least one more game on Dec. 9 or 10. Win again and Manteca is vying for a state crown on Dec. 16 or 17.

For now, the basketball Buffs are practicing with nine players, one of whom will take on more of an auxiliary role after the football season ends. The Buffaloes could be shorthanded for up to six games — most of them against top-level teams such as Lincoln, St. Mary’s and Liberty Ranch — with only two-plus weeks to gear up for the VOL season with a full squad.

Lewis does see an upside to this predicament.

“Some of these guys might not have the opportunity to play if the football guys were out here, so I feel like we’re getting to develop them more,” Lewis said. “That’s a positive way to spin it, for sure, but the football guys might be out for a while.”

Regardless, this is Tydus Verhoeven and Young’s team to command. The two seniors are the lone returners from a starting five starring 6-foot-9 standouts Anand Hundal and Kenny Wooten. The high-flying Wooten flirted with a triple-double (24 points, 17 rebounds, nine blocks) to lead Manteca (29-6) in its 60-51 state title-clinching win over Ayala of Chino Hills.

Young was the team’s third-leading scorer with 13 points per game and was a consistent clutch performer in the postseason. Verhoeven, a do-it-all 6-8 wing, averaged 9.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.7 blocks and is poised to have increased production across the board. He has received 11 offers from NCAA Division I programs — Fresno State, Loyola Marymount, Nevada, Pacific and San Jose State are among those seeking his commitment — but doesn’t plan on signing until the spring.

Although the Buffaloes will miss Hundal and Wooten, particularly on the defensive end, they’ll be able to move up and down the court with smaller teams. Their lack of guard depth and athleticism last year was exploited in three losses to Weston Ranch, which claimed the VOL and SJS Division III titles.

“When you have two bigs in the lane they can clog it up but now it’s opened up,” Verhoeven said. “We can slash more, drive and kick, and for this team it’s going to be better.”

The junior class will provide several versatile 6-2, 6-3 types like Derek Range, Antwann Taylor, Campiotti and Rachels. Bolding and Cedano give Manteca additional ball handlers and outside shooters to aid Young. 

Lewis said Campiotti, the starting quarterback for the football team, had an “eye-opening” offseason during the Ripon summer league as well as tournaments at Pacific and in Lake Tahoe.

“He was our leading scorer a lot of the time,” Lewis said. “I think he’s going to surprise some people.”

Don’t be surprised if others emerge until Campiotti and Co. join them on the hardwood.

“We’ll have different looks and mix a lot of stuff up,” Lewis said. “We’re deep with athletes who can play so you’ll see a lot more kids on the floor. Last year we played about seven or eight guys but now we’re a little bit deeper. We’re trying to get the guys to buy into playing hard with the minutes they get. There’s a lot of good competition.”

Manteca will see plenty of good competition as it gets ready for league, with and without the football players. The Buffaloes are back in the Cosumnes Oaks Tournament Dec. 15-17 and could see some of the state’s best at the Modesto Christian Holiday Hoops Classic Dec. 27-30. They’ll also match up with Rancho Mirage (30-2 last year) in the MaxPreps MLK Classic on Jan. 16.

The pressure is on to try and duplicate the successful 2015-16 campaign, and it starts without nearly half the team.

“If anything we put it on ourselves more than anybody else,” Verhoeven said. “We have set that high standard for ourselves and we’ve been working extremely hard to keep it. That’s something we take really personal because we want to defend what we have.”