Makenzie Perez used every inch of her length, from her fingertips to her toes, desperately trying to keep the Central Catholic girls soccer team atop the Valley Oak League.
She’d need another arm. And leg.
Perez made eight saves, some sprawling and others leaping, but the pressure created by Manteca’s dynamic duo down the stretch was just too much.
Lejla Pepic and Leah Manuleleua scored second-half goals and converted midfielder Ashlee Miller was equally as impressive in the net in a 2-0 victory.
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Miller had four saves for the Buffaloes (14-1-1, 5-0-1), who have now won three straight matches and 14 of the first 16.
The result shakes up the top of the VOL leader board.
A league that has known only one champion over the last two years — East Union, also the two-time defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division III champion — now has as many as five contenders.
For now, the Buffaloes have the inside track.
“This is the biggest win so far,” Manteca coach Justin Coenenberg said. “But we play East Union on Monday and that will be the next biggest game. That’s just how girls’ VOL soccer is. It’s one good game after another.”
Central Catholic (8-2-1, 4-1-1) and Manteca were tied for first entering Wednesday’s match, and the contest played like a title fight early on.
Both sides created chances in the first half — the Buffaloes held a slim advantage in shots on goal, 6-5 — but the match remained scoreless at the break.
The young, ever-evolving Raiders landed the first punches.
Boise State-bound forward Taylor Osnaya had a bouncing, left-footed shot pushed wide by Miller in the opening moments. She later had a 1-on-1 snuffed out in the 24th minute.
Osnaya raced onto a through ball, legging away from her defender, but buried her shot into Miller’s dive near the top of the penalty area. She collected the rebound but couldn’t get off another shot.
“Those were huge saves early on in the game. We were out-possessing them, but you see soccer games turn all the time,” Coenenberg said. “Those saves were huge to keep us in the game.”
Those missed opportunities would haunt the Raiders, shut out for the first time in nearly a month.
“We had our chances. We missed two 1-on-1s,” Central Catholic coach Dalton Duval said. “That’s 2-0 right there.”
Manuleleua, who plays with the speed and ferocity of a runaway bull, didn’t start Wednesday’s match after tweaking her knee in a college showcase.
The reigning Valley Oak League MVP wouldn’t stay on the bench long, though.
As soon as she entered the game, Duval was ready. Manuleleua was swarmed by three defenders as Central Catholic adjusted to a defensive-heavy 5-3-2 formation.
Consider it a failed experiment.
Manteca created four scoring opportunities in the final 13 minutes of the half, including two in a matter of seconds.
Perez picked a flicked-on header off her goal line in the 29th minute and then made a kick save on a 1-on-1 with Pepic moments later.
“I don’t know how many saves that kid had,” Duval said. “She kept us in it and gave us a chance; let us hang around. The soccer gods just weren’t good to us tonight.”
Manteca’s confidence was building … just as Central Catholic’s legs were giving out.
Before the game, Duval said his team looked lethargic and emotionally spent after Monday’s battle with East Union, a game the Raiders won 1-0.
Fatigue created space in the attacking third for Pepic and Manuleleua. With the freedom to turn and face the goal, the Buffaloes’ scoring leaders took full advantage.
“The girl looked tired and beat up a little bit. Again this is the VOL and you have to get through it,” Duval said. “It’s the first half of the season and we’re still getting into form, and I think it’s going to come.
“We’re a young team and they’re (Manteca) a very good team. We have to catch that level. I’m happy where we’re at right now. We competed and it’s not like they dominated us.”
Pepic scored in the 55th minute, bouncing a shot over Perez’s stretch. With her momentum carrying her toward the sideline, Pepic hit a ball that skipped off the turf and tailed over Perez, who had left her feet.
Manuleleua notched her 100th career goal in the 73rd minute. The senior took a pass from Pepic to the right of goal, cut back to her left foot and banged a shot in off the far post.
“Time of possession helps, but it doesn’t win you games,” Coenenberg said. “You have to put the ball in the back of the net. We definitely had our opportunities. … Overall, I was really happy, but I knew we had to put the ball in the back of the net. They knew that, too, and they came out and rose to the occasion.”
Manuleleua is the second player in the Stanislaus District to reach the 100-goal milestone this week. On Tuesday, Ripon Christian junior Abby Buitrago tallied her 100th in a 4-1 win over Waterford.
“I told her before the game to make it a good one,” Coenenberg said. “She did.”
Central Catholic will look to rebound Monday at Oakdale, yet another perennial title contender. Manteca will host East Union.