MANTECA — With the home team having every right to be concerned about Inderkum High’s speed advantage, the field at Guss Schmeidt Field was a touch longer than normal on Friday night.
Meanwhile, the visiting Tigers had great concern about the size of the Manteca offensive line, and there wasn’t a single thing they could do about it.
Alex Laurel ran behind that line 29 times for 193 yards and four scores, and reached the end zone a fifth time via the pass as the Buffaloes advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 championship game with a 45-36 victory over Inderkum.
“I take pride in being the guy who gets the carries, but all the credit goes to my line,” Laurel said. “Running behind those guys was the best way to win this game and it feels good that we won without going to something else that we didn’t know. We stuck to our bread and butter every week and now we get to play for the section championship.”
The Buffaloes (12-1) will be playing in the section title game for the eighth time and will be seeking their fourth championship. They’ll play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Stockton’s Lincoln High against the winner of this afternoon’s Christian Brothers-Sacramento semifinal.
Inderkum, which ended Manteca’s season last year in the first round of the playoffs, finished 10-3.
“We’ve been talking all week about getting redemption against this team and we came in tonight and got the job done,” said senior center Billy Sharmoug. “Hats off to Inderkum because they’re a great football team but tonight we were better.”
It really did come down to football in its simplest terms – the Buffaloes’ size against the Tigers’ speed.
“We’ve been undersized up front all year long and this happened to be the biggest team we’ve played,” said Inderkum coach Terry Stark. “But when the other team is bigger, you have to be faster and tougher. They leaned on us a little bit and grinded it out on the ground, and that was huge.”
So how noticible was the speed difference? Just rest assured that Manteca was more than a little bit relieved at the final gun, because the Tigers seemed capable of exploding at any time, from any point on the field. And the Buffaloes aren’t slow – it was just a relative difference.
“Inkerkum has the ability to throw every play to get back into a game,” said Manteca coach Eric Reis. “And, they have six or seven guys faster than our fastest.”
But not tougher than the Buffaloes’ toughest.
After the teams battled to a 14-14 tie through one quarter, with Laurel’s first scoring run followed shortly by Elijah Cooper’s 32-yard interception return, Manteca quickly took control, scoring 24 straight points to take a 38-14 lead into the fourth quarter.
Marcus Montano hit a 26-yard field goal for a 17-14 lead, but the biggest plays of the first half came at the end. Junior defensive lineman Steven Martinez made an open-field tackle to stop Inderkum on a fourth-and-one at the Buffs’ 21 with 1:54 left in the half.
Five plays later, Manteca was in the end zone when Joe Menzel hit Laurel coming out of the backfield, and the senior carried his tackler the final 20 yards into the end zone for a 24-14 lead with only 17 seconds left in the half.
“The score before the half was humongous,” Reis said. “Inderkum never gave up, but you could see their body language when we scored there. They’re one of the best teams in Sacramento and tonight we were better.”
Manteca piled it on in the third quarter, with Laurel scoring in runs of 22 and 1 yards for a 38-14 lead, but Inderkum was far from finished.
The Tigers scored on a short drive after stopping Manteca on fourth down in its own territory. Then, after Laurel ripped off his final scoring run from 31 yards, Inderkum’s Larry Hardy returned the kickoff 96 yards for a score, pulling his team within 45-28 for a breath of life with 6:08 left.
The Tigers would reach the end zone once more on a Tyler Dean run with 2:13 remaining, but still trailed by two scores when Manteca recovered the onside kick. The Buffaloes were able to run out the clock from there, with Menzel kneeling on the thick, damp grass.
“We made the field as good as we could, and it is what it is,” Reis said. “We maybe wanted it a little more slick.”
But Laurel and his linemen wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“This is perfect, and it’s something I’ve never felt in my life,” Laurel said. “From where we started, with all the work in the summer and the preseason, having the chance to play for the section championship is a great honor.”