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Running backs rule VOL MVP chatter
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The Valley Oak League season lived up to expectation, delivering us four worthy title contenders, and essentially two championship games on the final night.

Here’s what we know: 

Sierra annexed its second league title in 19 varsity seasons, as expected, rolling over the Weston Ranch. Though he tried to avoid the Gatorade bath with a sprint off the sideline, junior linebacker Enrique Jasso eventually caught and doused his coach to solidify the crown.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the county, Oakdale pulled away from Central Catholic in a battle of one-loss teams to earn the split with the Timberwolves. 

Sierra, Oakdale and Manteca – the Ringo Starr of the VOL’s Big Four – enter the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs with top-four seeds, while Central Catholic remains the heavyweight and odds-on favorite in Division IV.

With all of that settled, there’s just one pressing issue left in the great VOL debate: Who’s the MVP? 

There are clear-cut candidates from each of the Big Four schools, including:

• Mark Paule Jr., Sierra running back: This junior has rushed for 1,715 yards and 35 rushing touchdowns, displaying a perfect blend of speed, vision and balance. Though he’s small in stature, it works to his benefit. He often gets lost in the mass of humanity along his offensive line, before squirting out into space. He can do more than run. 

• Hector Soto, Manteca running back: Though he was slowed by an injury at the start of the VOL campaign, Soto has been unstoppable during the Buffs’ four-game winning streak. He topped 1,000 yards during Friday’s win at East Union, needing only seven carries to amass 131 yards and three touchdowns. Signature performances: He had 197 yards and three TDs in a win over Sierra; and 106 yards in just two quarters against Central Catholic.

• Frankie Trent, Oakdale full back: He solidified his place on this list with a 233-yard, six-touchdown performance against the Buffaloes at Levi’s Stadium. He also had two touchdowns apiece against the Timberwolves and Raiders.

• Justin Rice, Central Catholic running back: Rice started the season as a wide receiver, but seized his opportunity at running back when injuries left CC searching for a fill-in. Some fill-in. Rice has 1,172 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he’s averaging nearly 12 yards per carry. 

True, the VOL is, by definition and DNA, a running back’s league. Has been since the dawn of time. 

But the VOL has also produced some very dynamic defensive players – Manteca’s Michael Turner and Sonora’s Austin Raphael come to mind – and this fall saw the rise of another. 

Sierra middle linebacker Trevon McCray has been a force the league’s top scoring defense. Though he lacks an overwhelming number of tackles, McCray does have 16 stops for a loss, five forced fumbles and uncanny ability to hunt the football. 

Coaches game-planned for the middle linebacker the way they do running backs, which should earn McCray at least a mention in MVP chatter.

• • •

‘Bacon’ clogs the arteries … on the field

For the second time in as many weeks, Steven “Bacon” Martinez was clogging up the middle of the field. 

Two weeks ago, Martinez made his high school debut at full back as part of Manteca’s “Thunder” package. The 5-foot-9, 292-pound offensive lineman was charged with neutralizing Sierra’s middle linebackers and springing the Buffaloes’ ball carriers. 

Against East Union on Friday, Martinez returned to his roots at nose tackle, where he set the tone defensively with two early sacks of quarterback Jack Weaver. Martinez has 3.5 sacks on the season.

• • •

Mr. Clutch splits uprightfor Spartans

Matt Hernandez is so clutch, even if his team is not.

The Lathrop teen leapt off the Sports page and onto the front page when he returned a man’s wallet with $2,000 in it. Hernandez found the wallet in the parking lot at Save Mart and tracked its owner down inside the store.

Mr. Clutch was at it again on Friday, only this time in purely athletic context. Hernandez booted three field goals, connecting from 27, 28 and 30 yards, but it still wasn’t enough to halt the Spartans’ losing streak. Kimball won, 35-24.

A team many picked to finish fifth in league behind the Big Four, Lathrop plummeted to the bottom of the standings with a six-game losing streak and finished in a tie with Kimball.

• • •

Late arrival gives EU quick returns

Turns out, Gabe Chavez can do more than field a baseball deep in the hole.

The East Union senior joined the football team late in the season and was one of the few bright spots in a 70-21 loss to Manteca. Chavez had a pair of strong kickoff returns early in the game to give the Lancers their best field positions  of the night.

He was limited the rest of the way by Manteca High kicker Marcus Montano, who sent his next six kickoffs into the end zone.

“He’s one of those guys we wish we would have had all year,” East Union defensive coordinator Jason Stock said during the Senior Night festivities, shortly after Chavez and his family were introduced to the crowd.

Chavez was an all-Valley Oak League selection as an infielder in the spring, when he batted .311 with 23 hits and 11 stolen bases.

• • •

Ripon Christian coming home

Friday’s 22-13 victory over Delhi at Big Valley Christian may have been Ripon Christian’s last “away” home game.

Head coach Trey Ozenbaugh believes Ripon Christian may have its own stadium in time for the start of next year. The Knights have been hosting games at Ripon High’s Stouffer Field, Modesto Christian’s Roy Blakeley Field and Big Valley Christian.

“It would be a blessing,” Ozenbaugh said. 

Ripon Christian Schools hopes to transform a 3.65-acre field, currently home to a dirt track and natural grass soccer field, into an athletic facility that will be home to both football and soccer. The facility will include a scoreboard, press/coaches box, bleachers, snack bar and ticket booth, as well as a visitors’ parking lot. 

In April, the project was green-lighted by the Ripon Planning Commission.