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Camaraderie, competition spark former Lancers
East Union High alumni football player Gerrit Matthews breaks out of a huddle with teammates during Friday’s practice at Doxey Park. The Lancers of old will clash with Manteca High’s alumni team May 6 at East Union. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Allegiances have blurred between Manteca and East Union high schools in recent years.

Former athletes graduate from one school and years down the road teach and coach at the other.

But on Friday, May 6, men like Gene Ballardo, Kris Hensley and Josh Hebert — all baseball coaches for Manteca High — can go all out for their alma mater, East Union.

Thanks to Alumni Football USA, the East Union-Manteca alumni football game will be revived 17 years after the last one was played.

The game for the Class of 2001-and-older teams will kick off at 8 p.m. under the lights at East Union’s Dino Cunial Field. Manteca is also fielding a Class of 2002-and-younger squad, which will face an alumni team from Sierra.

Hebert, a 1994 graduate of EU, said he was a senior when the old alumni game last took place. During his youth he was one of the few Golden West Elementary School graduates to end up at East Union. Many of his old pals, such as Manteca High great Don Morgan and Mario Pimentel (who will represent the green school May 6), went across town for high school.

“I’ve had to hear so much mess from them all these years, now here I am coaching over there in baseball,” Hebert said after practice Friday night at Doxey Park. “You’re kind of torn between two schools, but I still bleed red and blue.”

The rekindling of past relationships and the old competitive fire from a once-intense rivalry has helped build interest in the alumni game.

Brothers Jeff and Brian Wood — 1993 and 1995 East Union grads, respectively — are credited for getting the whole thing started.  They got in touch with Alumni Football USA PacWest Regional Director Darren Taylor, started a page on Facebook and word got around quickly.

Hensley (1995), who serves as assistant coach under Ballardo for Manteca High’s varsity baseball squad, first heard about the alumni game while watching East Union’s playoff football game against Del Oro back in November.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think it would go off,” Hensley said. “I didn’t think there would be enough guys to do it. We actually have a pretty good turnout.”

Even athletes who specialized in other sports in high school turned out.

Quarterback Neil Westmoreland (1994) started playing football for the original Manteca Cowboys when he was 8, but he dropped the sport after his sophomore year to concentrate on wrestling.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m out here,” he said. “I never got to play varsity and always felt that I missed out.”

Ronnie Green (1992) played football during his junior year, but his specialty was, and still is, soccer. He was a part of the soccer program’s three-year Valley Oak League championship run (1991-93), and no Lancer team has captured a conference title since.

His father, Allan, is one of the founders of the Manteca Area Soccer League and is a co-head coach for EU’s varsity team.

“I found out about (the alumni football game) on Facebook like everybody else,” Green said. “Jeff Wood and Mike Richter (1992) said they needed a kicker, so I said ‘Sure.’

“It’s just fun. I’m seeing a bunch of old buddies I haven’t seen in a long time. A lot of them I hadn’t seen in 20 years.”

Both East Union and Manteca began practicing March 19. East Union holds practice every Saturday at Doxey Park with a few weekday sessions, but with sparser numbers.

Pads won’t be used until the day of the game, but it didn’t take long for some Lancers to get nicked up.

“We have people going down every practice, and that’s without pads,” Hensley said. “We’ve had a broken collarbone, a torn Achilles, a pulled hamstring — we just want to make it to the game.

“If we padded up we wouldn’t make it to the game. Our first two practices were pretty physical because guys were just fired up, but we realized that we had to mellow out a little bit.”

The alumni game will be special for participants and spectators for different reasons. It’s a reunion of friends and classmates. It’s a chance for kids to see their dads play the game. It’s a chance for the players to relive their glory years and take cracks at their once-hated foes.

It is, after all, still a rivalry.

“My wife is from Manteca High, and she won’t even wear my letterman jacket,” Hebert said. “I told her I’m a living legend in this town and that anybody else would love to wear my jacket.”