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Sierra strikes after surviving early onslaught
Sierra’s Erik Noriega blasts in one of his first two goals in the final minutes of the first half Wednesday as Sierra hosted Manteca High. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Manteca High was taking the better shots, but the host Sierra Timberwolves was making theirs.

Sparked by crafty sophomore Erick Noriega’s late first-half goals, Sierra leapfrogged East Union for the Valley Oak League lead with a resounding 5-0 victory at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium Wednesday.

Weston Ranch did Sierra a huge favor Thursday by upsetting East Union, 1-0.

“They had the better looks than we did in the first half,” Sierra coach Jose Montes conceded. “I think it was one of those games that whoever made the first goal was going to take it from there. We had to keep putting on the pressure and have someone get one in for us.”

Noriega answered the call.

In the 37th minute, Noriega controlled the ball from about 30 yards out of a poor goal kick from Manteca and zipped it to the left panel.

One minute later, Noriega stripped a defender of the ball, dribbled around and through three Manteca defenders before placing it between goalie Phillip Herrera (4 saves) and the left post.

“My mind was set on scoring that goal,” Noriega said. “I was just going to take on everybody and get my shot.”

And just like that Sierra (7-1-2, 14-6-3 overall) went into halftime on an emotional high.

Nico Gonzalez scored in the 58th minute, and in the 59th Ruben Lopez deflected in a cross from Amir Guedoir. Noriega was also in on the assist, setting up the fourth goal with a through ball to Guedoir on the right side.

On the match’s final play, reserve Vicente Castro collected a through pass from Gonzalez for an easy one-on-one.

It’s unquestionably a blowout on the scoreboard, but the peripheral stats tell a different story. Manteca led on shot attempts for most of the first half, and by game’s end Sierra had the edge, 20-16 (9-6 on goal).

The Buffaloes (5-3-2, 8-8-3) had more corner-kick opportunities, 6-2, and moments where they released shot after shot after shot only to misfire on every try.

One telling sequence came on Manteca’s first attempts in the 7th minute, when Sierra goalkeeper Armando Gonzalez (5 saves) slapped away an uncontested shot by Giovanni Marin, and Jose Maravilla’s half-volley try on the rebound caromed off the crossbar.

Then in the 14th minute, Marin set Maravilla up nicely with a long pass to the left side, but Maravilla’s chip shot over the charging Armando Gonzalez was cleared away from danger by defender Alejandro Gonzalez.

And on the ensuing corner kick, Robbie Geerlof had a look from the top of the 18 but bounced it off the crossbar. The second-shot opportunity by Alex Barragan was pushed wide right.

All of that happened before Noriega landed the first blow.

It was just one of those days for Manteca, and coach Justin Coenenberg had little reason to get on his players for poor play or lackluster effort.

“We were a little unlucky in the first half. Who knows? If we get those in we’re up two to nothing and it could be a totally different outcome,” Coenenberg said. “We were unlucky. I wasn’t unhappy with the way the guys played at all.”

The good news for the Buffaloes is that there are still four matches left to be played, and with some help they could still sneak into the top three for a Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoff berth.

Sierra has even better news: Its toughest stretch, which includes a 3-1 win over EU Monday, in the second half of league is in the rear-view mirror. Up next is first-year varsity Kimball at home.

“Even though we have four games we still have a lot of work to do,” Montes said. “We don’t want to take anything for granted.

“The ones you expect to win are the ones that sneak up on you and bite you. Being on top is a hard thing to do, but climbing to the top is easier.”

Manteca 2, Sierra 2

Sierra headed in the tying goal off a direct kick in the final seconds of the match.

Manteca (6-1-3) got goals from Juan De La Torre and Cameron Crippen, both in the second half.