STOCKTON – Billy Sharmoug and Elijah Cooper tugged at the corners of the blue banner, jostling for possession of football’s ultimate keepsake.
Safety Dom Pisano crouched red-faced and shivering in the team photo shoot, his tears hiding among the raindrops.
Meanwhile, quarterback Joe Menzel fell into the arms of a fan. He struggled to frame his emotion – a tornado of excitement, joy and disbelief – so he stayed locked in embrace, leaving the words to others.
Like Isaac McClain, whose high-top fade spouted steam like a chimney stack.
The Buffaloes’ 291-pound road-grading lineman wagged the index finger on his right hand. “I’m putting mine right here, baby.”
Manteca High’s quest for a Sac-Joaquin Section championship ring ended Friday evening on the 10-yard line of Alex G. Spanos Stadium amid a wild and wet celebration.
The Buffaloes delivered an unprecedented beating, whipping Sacramento 49-6 with a style of play that was both water-proof and unstoppable.
Manteca scored the game’s first 28 points and stretched its lead to 36 after three quarters, inducing a running clock.
Never before has a Division III section final ended in such a lopsided fashion.
“I can’t believe it. This is what we’ve worked for all season,” said Menzel, who was 5 of 7 for 57 yards and accounted for two touchdowns. “It’s awesome. It’s … just … awesome. I guess I’ve only four words for you: We got that ring. We got that ring.”
The Buffaloes’ last setback seems so long ago it came on Sept. 6, a 28-27 overtime defeat to Santa Clara Wilcox on the final play of the game.
Instead of trotting out sure-footed kicker Marcus Montano for the game-tying extra point, head coach Eric Reis played for the win and put the ball in Menzel’s hands.
The play was doomed from the start. Menzel fumbled the center-quarterback exchange, falling on top of the ball near the 1-yard line. Wilcox raced off the field that night with the victory, leaving a host of Buffaloes gut-punched and mystified.
A funny thing happened, though.
Menzel took the darkest moment of his season and turned it into positive energy.
“That was a huge game for us,” Menzel said. “I think we needed that. It helped us prepare for these playoff games. It didn’t let us get big-headed.”
In the eyes of his coaches, he blossomed into a leader. He didn’t cower or sulk, as so many teenagers do in the face of adversity. Instead, Menzel turned that disappointment into positive energy.
And a promise to those in his Twitter-verse.
“We will not lose again. I promise you that,” he tweeted.
A pledge that bold could have burned the senior captain. (#famouslastwords)
It gave every opponent left on Manteca’s schedule ammunition, words to pin up on the locker room. (#eatyourwords)
And it could have created a mountain of expectation too great for even a team this talented to scale. (#walkthewalk)
Menzel was cognizant of it all. Still, he wasn’t going to back down from what he believed, and what he believed was Manteca had a senior-laden group that could run the table.
“That wasn’t me just blowing smoke,” he said. “I have all the confidence in the world in my team. I really believed we wouldn’t lose another game – and we didn’t.”
Manteca (13-1) has won 12 straight games and collected its third section title in 10 years with a familiar formula.
The Buffaloes were opportunistic early, turning a bevy of Sacramento blunders into a 21-0 lead at the half. Big-game experience, Reis said, played a key role in the opening 24 minutes.
Many of Manteca’s stars ferried water and game balls onto the field for the 2005 and 2006 title-winning teams. They’ve played state-caliber opponents (Oakdale) and experienced the pain of a playoff loss.
Sacramento was making its first appearance in section football championship, and it showed.
“Our team is senior laden. This is senior group of kids that wanted to leave a legacy,” Reis said.
The Dragons turned the ball over four times and committed eight first-half penalties, two of which were unsportsmanlike oh-nos that extended Manteca’s first scoring drive. Menzel tallied the first six points, sneaking around the edge on a bootleg.
“We sent a statement to the CIF. We want to play for a state championship and we believe we have a team that can win a state championship.”
And if their name isn’t called during Sunday’s regional bowl selection show?
“If we play one more game, we play one more game,” Menzel said. “Either way, we’re going out on top.”
Just like he said they would.