The next head football coach at Manteca High sat behind a table fashioned with a school letterman and helmets, his hands clasped, his vision strong.
He looked at home in green, and rightfully so.
After an exhaustive search, Manteca High principal Frank Gonzales and athletic director Bill Slikker decided to fill Eric Reis’ void with a candidate close to home. They chose Mark Varnum, 38, an assistant the last six seasons under Reis and the architect of one of the most prolific offenses in school history.
“He’s a legend around here and what he’s built is amazing,” Varnum said of Reis’ influence on him and the campus culture. “He’s hands down one of the most talented coaches in the valley, if not the section. I just tried to absorb everything I could from him the past few years, especially this last year.
"It’s great having him on campus still and sharing an office with the guy. What better adviser to have than the guy who has the desk right next to you? I’m definitely going to take what I learned from him and the things he did here, and hopefully build on that and take it the next level."
Varnum emerged from a pool of approximately 20-25 applicants, said Slikker. The seven-member committee met with the final seven candidates last Friday. The group included four current head coaches in Northern California, two former coordinators, and one other on-campus applicant.
Varnum was officially announced Friday during a lunchtime ceremony attended by administration, select students, and school staff. A P.E. and sports medicine teacher, Varnum was later introduced to the student body.
“We decided to keep with someone here on our campus,” Slikker said. “We have total faith in him in keeping the ball rolling, so to speak, and putting his flavor on it to take us to the next level.”
Varnum, 38, takes over for one of the Stanislaus District’s winningest coaches.
In 16 years, Reis won 150 games with a .777 winning percentage, five Sac-Joaquin Section championships and led the Buffaloes into a CIF State Northern California regional bowl three times, including each of the last two seasons. The Buffaloes are 0-3 in regional bowl games.
“How do we get over that NorCal Bowl hump? How do we take it to the next level?" Varnum asked rhetorically. "To do that, we have to tighten up some little things and how we handle ourselves, and the kids have really bought into that. From Day 1 in the weight room this off-season, they’ve been getting after it. They know we don’t rebuild here at Manteca. We’ve talked already about being the first team to three-peat."
Reis’ last season at the controls might have been his finest. It was certainly his most rewarding.
With his son Kyle Reis anchoring the offensive line, along with three-year senior standouts Gino Campiotti, Ferrin Manuleleua and Justin Kakala filling out the foundation, Manteca captured its second straight section title and was awarded the school’s first-ever regional bowl home game.
The Buffaloes routed Oakdale in the Division III final, 34-17, and then lost a shootout with eventual CIF State champion St. Francis of Mountain View, 28-23.
“To work with coach Reis in his last go around, I couldn’t have been happier with how it turned out, winning that section title,” Varnum said. “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to build on that and take that next step like we talked about."
Varnum, a native of Washington who played guard at Puget Sound University, has had a large stake in the program’s overall success.
A former lower-level coach, he succeeded Neil MacDannald as the varsity team’s offensive coordinator last fall, inheriting quarterback Gino Campiotti, a dual-threat headed to Northern Arizona University on scholarship.
The offense transformed under his watch.
Manteca highlighted Campiotti, moving away from the traditional power run game, and success followed. Manteca defeated Bay Area-power Valley Christian in its season opener, 22-20, and Christian Brothers twice. Campiotti set school records for passing yards (3,265), touchdowns (39), attempts (357) and completions (221).
Varnum says Manteca will remain a “chameleon,” offensively, mixing and matching the pass and run to keep teams guessing. He’s looking to Jorge Cedano, Trabron Russell and Jacob DeJesus, among others, to take the baton.
Just as he has.
“I want our players to be the leading force not only in athletics but the campus as a whole,” Varnum said. “The nice thing about this class behind them, the junior class that will be seniors, they play with a chip on their shoulder. They know they’re behind this great, great class and their biggest thing is they have to earn it. To live up to those expectations and those results, they’re going to have to put the work in."
Varnum will retain defensive coordinator Rick James, as well as offensive and defensive line coaches Dan Eavenson and Ken Menasco. Coach Jason Dukes will continue to work with the wide receivers.
“There will be a few changes here and there,” Varnum said. “I still have a few phone calls to make. If I can hold onto every single person, I will."
Manteca will open the 2018 season Aug. 17 at Lathrop, which will be in its first season in the Western Athletic Conference. The Buffaloes will host Downey Aug. 24, travel to Granada in Livermore Aug. 31, before closing the non-conference season with a home clash against Tracy Sept. 14.
“He’s the guy that’s going take us one more step to the next level,” Slikker said. "At the end of the day, it was a slam dunk."
All-sports Nike deal
Manteca High has partnered with East Bay to become an “all-student,” Nike-sponsored school.
Every athletic team on campus will wear Nike uniforms and have access to discounted apparel and equipment, beginning in the fall. The deal is similar to the one De La Salle High has through East Bay, senior representative Kevin Kelly said.
“I don’t want to see five different logos out there,” Slikker said. “I want to see one. When you think of certain schools, when you think of Michigan you think of the the ‘M,’ like we have. Alabama’s helmets for years and years and years, it’s been a just number on the side of the helmet. That’s what it is -- tradition. We want to get there; we want to be that way with all of our programs.”
Last fall, the Manteca football team wore Under Armour.
This new partnership brings the entire athletic program under the Nike umbrella.
The deal was created through boys basketball coach Brett Lewis’ longstanding relationship with Kelly, who services special accounts through Northern California. Lewis has used Kelly for his uniform needs since his days as the East Union basketball coach.
“We like to align ourselves with sports programs that are very successful,” Kelly said. “… Manteca is a top-tier sports program. Football has always been awesome, and I’m sure that tradition is now going to continue. Basketball winning the state title a couple of years ago, and various other sports having great success. We’re very proud and very happy to be affiliated with this school."