Laurel emerges from the pack, leads Manteca into NorCal bowl game

jcortez@modbee.comDecember 12, 2013 

— Alex Laurel tends to get lost in the crowd.

This season in the Stanislaus District, a record four running backs surpassed the 2,000-yard mark. Two of them – Central Valley’s Ja’Quan Gardner and Ripon Christian’s Andrew Brown – had a well-publicized race to the district’s single-season and career rushing records.

All Laurel’s done is amass 1,799 yards and 47 total touchdowns – the fifth highest total in the state – and help Manteca (13-1) to Saturday night’s CIF Division 3 Northern California bowl game against unbeaten Enterprise (12-0) of Redding.

Even though Laurel gave everyone a hint as to what kind of season was in store – his first carry this season resulted in a 44-yard touchdown run – his efforts go widely unnoticed.

Case in point: In the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 playoffs, Laurel rushed for 258 yards and five touchdowns in a 69-55 win over Central Valley.

But Gardner, playing in the final high school game of his career, stole the spotlight with 378 yards and four TDs.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” says Laurel, who’s had a season’s worth of production in four playoff victories – 732 yards, 15 TDs, 6.9 yards per carry. “As long as we get the job done, stats don’t mean anything to this team. We just want that ‘W’.”

Then there’s the little matter of his offensive line, though there’s nothing little about it.

The Buffaloes’ line is just a few biscuits short of averaging 275 pounds across. There’s a trio of 300-pounders – left guard Billy Sharmoug, left tackle Isaac McClain and right tackle Joe Eavenson – while right guard Tyler Elliott tips the scales at about 240 and center Valenti Saavedra at around 230.

Anybody would be overshadowed by a line that huge, especially the small-by-RB-standards Laurel. At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, with boyish good looks, Laurel could be mistaken for one of his teammates’ younger brother.

“He’s a lot stronger than he looks,” says left guard Sharmoug. “He bullies people sometimes. It’s kinda fun to watch.”

Laurel’s linemen recognize his talents – “It’s hard to come up with words to describe him,” says Elliott – and he, in turn, appreciates what they do for him.

Saavedra, according to head coach Eric Reis, can effectively single-block opposing nose tackles (And why wouldn’t he? He faces Sharmoug and McClain every day in practice). This leaves Sharmoug and Elliott free to attack linebackers on the next level.

“I don’t know of too many linebackers that can handle that kind of matchup,” says Reis.

From there, Laurel finds the holes and darts through.

“The thing about Alex is he’s not afraid to run between the tackles,” adds Reis. “You see a speed guy and you’d think he’d want to go around the end, but he runs hard.”

His linemen appreciate that mentality. They know they’re in for a smashmouth affair on Saturday.

The Hornets feature Washington State-bound tackle Brandon Evers (6-6, 290) and battering-ram running back Izzy Matthews (6-1, 205), who has rushed for 1,860 yards this season, including 230 last week in a 40-14 win over Paradise in the Northern Section final.

Yet another running back to potentially outshine Laurel.

Doesn’t matter. The Buffaloes, who won their first section title since 2006 last Friday – doing so on Laurel’s 18th birthday, no less – wouldn’t trade their teammate for any of those other backs in the Stanislaus District.

“I think his numbers speak for themselves,” says Sharmoug. “And so does the ring.”

Bee staff writer Joe Cortez can be reached at jcortez@modbee.com or (209) 578-2380. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeePreps.

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