MANTECA – Eighteen touchdowns. More than 1,000 yards of total offense. Three players with more than 200 yards rushing. A quarterback with more than 200 yards passing.
And in the end, the game was decided on a defensive play.
Manteca linebacker Chase McKee scooped up a fumble late in the fourth quarter and returned it 69 yards to seal a wild 69-55 victory over Central Valley in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 playoffs at Guss Schmiedt Field. ( See video)
“We knew it was going to be a scoring battle,” said Hawks head coach Jason McCloskey, whose team finishes 6-5 after making its first playoff appearance. “We thought we could get a couple of stops and keep it close.
“But that was not a fumble. That was not a fumble.”
McCloskey not only thought his player was down before the ball popped loose, the thought Manteca should’ve been flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
There was no flag on the play, and no discussion among the referees afterward.
The win sends the second-seeded Buffaloes (10-1) into the second round where they’ll face No. 10 Casa Roble (8-3), a 41-23 winner over Rosemont. It also ends the career of Central Valley running back Ja’Quan Gardner, who almost single-handedly wrecked Manteca’s season.
Gardner, the Stanislaus District’s all-time leading rusher with 5,636 yards enter Friday’s contest, rushed for 373 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 6,009 yards for his career. Also, Gardner needed 107 yards to become the district’s single-season leader. He did that easily, setting a new standard of 2,462.
After the game, Gardner could barely speak.
“We worked so hard for four years and now it’s all over,” the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Gardner managed to say between sobs. “It’s crazy.
“We played our hearts out tonight.”
Gardner wasn’t the only player Manteca had to worry about. Quarterback Kendel Johnson carried the ball 18 times for 214 yards and two TDs. All told, the Hawks rushed for more than 600 yards against the Buffs’ defense.
“As long as we have one more point on the scoreboard than they do, I’ll take it,” said Manteca head coach Eric Reis. “We faced, arguably, the greatest player in the history of the district tonight.”
Reis, however, has a pretty good running back of his own. Senior Alex Laurel carried the ball 25 times for 256 yards and five touchdowns.
“I just try to go out and do my thing,” said Laurel. “But there was a little part of me that wanted to out-do the star on the other team.”
Laurel may not have outdone Gardner, but he got the victory.
With the game resembling the back-and-forth of a tennis match in the first half, the Buffaloes finally broke CV’s serve in the second quarter. After Laurel’s 11-yard TD run made it 28-21 with 10:32 to play in the first half, the Hawks came up short on a fake punt and Manteca capitalized. Quarterback Joe Menzel, who completed 8 of 13 for 203 yards and two TDs, hit the speedy Brandon Dabney from 39 yards out to make it 35-21.
Later in the first half, with just 22 seconds left on the clock, Gardner popped into the end zone from 3 yards to make it 42-35. And since Central Valley would be getting the kickoff to open the second half, the Hawks had a chance to get back on serve.
“That play right before the half, how big was that?” said Reis.
The Manteca coach wasn’t talking about Gardner’s late touchdown, but rather a TD by Manteca’s Michael Gonzalez with 10 seconds remaining. Gonzalez raced in from his own 47, again making it a two-TD margin.
With 26 seconds to play in the third quarter and Manteca leading 62-48 CV’s Josh Bellelle recovered a Manteca fumble on the Hawks’ 38. Central Valley capped a 62-yard scoring drive with 8:35 to play in the fourth when Gardner threw a jump-pass to Christian Romo from the 4. That made it 62-55, setting the stage for McKee.