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Manteca baseball teams historic run is the top sports story of 2014
The Manteca High baseball team celebrates its Valley Oak League title-clinching win at Sierra on May 6. The Buffaloes went on to earn the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV banner and Cal-Hi Sports Division III State Team of the Year award. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO

It’s not just about what Manteca High’s baseball team accomplished, but how it went about doing so.

The Buffaloes garnered their first Valley Oak League championship in 29 years behind a near-perfect game from their “No. 2” pitcher. Three weeks later, with the seniors on the team already graduated, they battled back from a late six-run deficit to topple Vista del Lago 7-6 for the program’s first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship.

There were many memorable stories from the past year in the Manteca area, but the Buffaloes’ wild and sometimes-dominant stampede to a mythical state title tops them all.


1. Buffaloes baseball

Neil MacDannald returned to the diamond after earning his fourth SJS championship as offensive coordinator for Manteca’s storied football team in the fall of 2013.

Previously the Buffaloes’ varsity head baseball coach in 2006-07, he inherited a talent-rich club laden with seniors. Jacob Corn, now at Oregon, was named the Manteca Bulletin All-Area Baseball MVP after posting a 1.13 ERA, 8-2 record and 103 strikeouts against just nine walks in 68 1/3 innings. The southpaw outdueled USC-bound Bryce Dydra during Manteca’s two-game shutout of seven-time defending VOL champion Oakdale.

Corn and longtime battery mate Buddy Reeder joined Lucas Vaughn on the Cal-Hi Sports Medium Schools Team. Cal-Hi Sports also crowned the Buffaloes (25-3) as the state’s Division III Team of the Year.

Vaughn stepped out of Corn’s shadow and proved himself to be an ace as well. He held a 12-0 record, 1.11 ERA and 70 strikeouts and was tied for the most wins in the state. Vaughn took a perfect game into the seventh inning of Manteca’s 4-0 win that clinched its outright VOL title at Sierra.

Vaughn shined again in the SJS Division IV championship game against Vista del Lago, this time in relief. He gave up no runs and no hits over the final 2 2/3 innings, helping the Buffaloes climb back from a 6-0 deficit. No. 9 hitter Alex Jorgensen capped off the 7-6 dramatic walk-off victory, knocking in Brandon Landwehr with a single.  


2. Chelsea Gray’s year

The Brock Elliot School graduate became the city’s first-ever female basketball player to reach the pro ranks in April when she was drafted 11th overall by Connecticut Sun despite suffering a second season-ending injury just months prior.

The 2012-13 ACC co-player of the year and All-American at Duke broke her right kneecap last January. In the previous year she missed the ACC and NCAA tournaments after dislocating the same kneecap. Gray sat out her entire rookie season with the Sun as she focused on rehabbing.

In October, Gray, who now lives in Southern California, returned to the Central Valley to give back to the communities she once called home. The 22-year-old first visited Brock Elliot School to speak with students one day before hosting a basketball clinic at St. Mary’s High in Stockton, where she helped the Rams capture multiple state championships during her prep days.

The 5-foot-11 point guard currently plays for Rishon Lezion of the Israeli women’s basketball league.


3. Brooke Riley’s near-miss

Manteca’s most accomplished girls golfer came oh so close to having a chance at winning a state championship.

Riley, a junior at East Union, placed third with a 71 in the CIF State Championships at Red Hills Country Club in Rancho Cucamonga but was tied for the lead at 3-under as she strolled to the 18th green. She double bogeyed the final hole and had a 4-foot putt lip out in her attempt to force a playoff.

Riley, of course, didn’t come away empty-handed. The three-time VOL MVP and All-Area Girls Golfer of the Year has since been courted by NCAA Division I programs, with Cal, Ohio State and Northwestern among her top options. 


4. Friday Night Lights?

Last spring, Manteca High’s football team was one of four invited to take part in the Levi’s Stadium Friday Night Lights event at the new billion-dollar home of the San Francisco 49ers. 

The Buffaloes were slated to open the season there on Aug. 29 against Wilcox of Santa Clara, which edged them 28-27 in a thrilling overtime contest in 2013, but in the days leading up, the 49ers deemed the playing surface to be unplayable and unsafe. 

The Buffaloes would still get their chance to play at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 11. The event was rescheduled and split into two days, with Manteca taking on longtime VOL rival Oakdale at noon. Frankie Trent (33 carries, 223 yards, six touchdowns) and the Mustangs rolled to a 42-21 victory, a share of the VOL title, the SJS Division III championship and a third appearance in the CIF Northern California Regional Bowl Game. Final result notwithstanding, the experience of competing on the same turf that the pros play is one the Buffaloes won’t soon forget.


5. VOL soccer reigns

It was a big year for VOL soccer, especially for the East Union girls and Weston Ranch boys teams.

Last May, unbeaten East Union (19-0-1) held off talented Vista del Lago 3-2 to earn the SJS Division IV banner, the first in program history. Lancers star Isela Rivera scored two highlight goals in the win, finishing with 28 in her senior season and 82 over her decorated career.

In the fall, Weston Ranch (24-2-3) won its last 18 matches to win the school’s first section title in any sport, but it didn’t come easy. 

On Oct. 22, the Cougars battled back from a 2-0 deficit to knock off Manteca 3-2 and clinch its first VOL crown. Joseph Mayorca accounted for two second-half goals in the comeback and was named VOL and All-Area MVP. In its next game, Weston Ranch topped Oakdale 2-1, and Oakdale went on to garner the SJS Division III banner.

Weston Ranch won its section championship in Division IV and shut out its three opponents, 5-0.


6. Golden Conners

Dakota Conners, now at Cal State East Bay, earned a very rare achievement after his decorated senior season with Sierra. He was one of just nine players selected for the American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings Gold Glove Award, which goes to the top defensive players in the country.

The All-Area Defensive Player of the Year sported a .970 fielding percentage and committed just three errors, impressive numbers for a shortstop. Conners also produced at the plate, batting .382 with 30 RBIs while leading the Timberwolves (22-6) to a runner-up finish in the VOL and the SJS Division IV playoff semifinals.

Conners returned to Sierra on Sept. 5 when he was presented with the award before the school’s football team kicked off its home opener.


7. Sierra’s sizzling start

Through the first nine weeks of the football season, Sierra had the look of a team primed to make history. The Timberwolves were 8-0 after beating cross-town rival East Union and had their other in-town foe, Manteca, in the crosshairs. 

Up until that point Sierra had soared up the Cal-Hi Sports Bowl and MaxPreps SJS rankings. In its rear-view mirror were benchmark victories over long-established powers Central Catholic and Oakdale. 

With towering linemen, a hard-hitting defense and one of the state’s most prolific running backs, it was understandable why many had thought the Timberwolves were on their way to their first section championship and CIF Regional Bowl Game appearance.

But, alas, Sierra had its worst efforts late in the season as injuries began to mount. Manteca scored a 34-20 upset, forcing Sierra to share its second VOL championship. Three weeks later, Rio Linda stunned the second-seeded Timberwolves 49-44 in the second round of the SJS Division III playoffs.


8. Buddy Hitchock

A standout track and field sprinter for Sierra in the late 2000s, Hitchcock was selected by the San Francisco Fire in the third round (22nd overall) of the inaugural National Professional Grid League draft in July.

He had previously competed in the Reebok CrossFit Games but found a home with the NPGL, which offers a more team-oriented version of the sport. Hitchock was instrumental in leading the Fire to the NPGL Preseason Tournament Championship, but the D.C. Brawlers exacted revenge Oct. 1 by beating them 20-16 in the playoff finale. 


9. Ripon Christian soccer 

Led by freshman Abby Buitrago’s state-leading 52 goals, the Ripon Christian girls soccer team (21-2-1) earned a Southern League co-championship and its first-ever section title. It was Buitrago who provided the clinching goal in a penalty kick shootout of the Division VII final against Millennium.

Not to be outdone, the school’s boys club (22-4-1) collected its second banner with a 4-1 drubbing of Sacramento Country Day this past fall. Andrew Manes accounted for all of Ripon Christian’s goals.


10. Ripon boys water polo

As expected, the Ripon High boys water polo team won the VOL title and made its way to the SJS Division II championship match.

Unexpectedly, the Indians (27-4), outmanned in just their fifth season, put up a valiant fight against one of the section’s powerhouse programs. Much-favored Rio Americano, led by All-American Ian Brady, labored to dispatch Ripon, 16-15. The Indians had to go nearly an entire half without a substitute after one of their top players was ejected with his third exclusion foul early in the third quarter.

After the hard-fought contest, both teams celebrated as one. Rio Americano claimed yet another section banner, but Ripon won respect.