Alex Laurel has been the go-to guy for Manteca High all season, and he’s delivered all season, too.
That’s what made his fumble with just over 10 minutes left in Saturday’s CIF Division 2 Northern California championship game all the more shocking.
Officials ruled that Laurel lost the ball just before he broke the plane of the end zone, and when the ball rolled through the back of the end zone, Enterprise gained possession via a touchback and held on for a 27-21 victory at Lincoln High’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
According to Laurel, though, it was a touchdown rather than a fumble.
“Yes I did,” Laurel emphatically replied when asked if he scored on the play. “One ref called it a touchdown, the others were confused about it. The call on the field was wrong. It was not a fumble.”
Videographers camped out near the goal line, on either sideline, reviewed the play on their cameras and they were unable to reach a consensus.
It was that close.
And so it’s Enterprise (13-0) of Redding that moves on to play Chaminade (West Hills) in the D2 state championship game at the StubHub Center in Carson on Saturday. Chaminade defeated Hart (Newhall) 28-10.
The Buffaloes (13-2), champions of the Sac-Joaquin Section for a fourth time in school history, seemed to have put Laurel’s turnover behind them when Chris Aranda fell on an Enterprise fumble at the Hornet 39 with 7:50 to play. But on the very next play, Enterprise’s Justin Abney picked off Joe Menzel on the 18.
Manteca would get one more crack, but facing a fourth-and-13 with 4:03 to play, turned the ball over on downs.
“That was a great high school football game,” said Manteca head coach Eric Reis, who guided the Buffs to three of the school’s section crowns. “Unfortunately, we made a few too many mistakes tonight.”
The game began positively for the Buffs, who embarked on an impressive 71-yard, seven-play drive to start the game. Laurel capped the march with a 2-yard TD run with 9:24 to play in the opening stanza.
Enterprise’s opening drive didn’t go as well. After Hornets returner Izzy Perea bobbled Marcus Montano’s kick, and then slipped at the six, the drive halted when quarterback Bobby Luken mishandled a shotgun snap and was smashed to the turf by defensive tackle Billy Sharmoug on third down.
The Buffaloes made it 14-0 just before the end of the first quarter when they capped a 60-yard, 15-play drive that chewed up 5 minutes, 18 seconds, of clock.
Then everything changed.
The Hornets cut into Manteca’s momentum when Perea returned the ensuing kickoff 68 yards to Manteca’s 29. With 11:31 to play in the second quarter, Enterprise cashed in when Izzy Matthews scored from 3 to make it 14-7.
Manteca took over on its 36, but turned the ball over when Perea caused Michael Gonzalez to fumble near midfield with a helmet-to-ball hit. Matthews picked it up and returned it to the 32, and the Hornets made Manteca pay when Luken scored from 5 to tie the score.
Enterprise squibbed the ensuing kickoff – the Hornets squibbed both prior kickoffs to that point, and have used the strategy all season – and recovered at the Buffaloes’ 44. Two plays later, Luken hit Justin Abney on a 38-yarder to the 1, and Matthews bulled in for his second TD of the night and a 21-14 advantage with 7:20 left in the first half.
That’s 21 points in a span of 4:11, in case you’re keeping score.
The TD run was part of Matthews’ big night. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder had 33 carries for 165 yards, bringing his season total to 2,015.
Still, Manteca struck back when Menzel found Laurel with a perfectly placed 42-yard strike with 5:38 to play in the half, waking a drowsy crowd.
“We were up 14-0 and they battled back and took the lead,” said Reis. “We were on the ropes right there.”
The second half got off to a weird start.
After Perea returned the ball to the 23, the game was stopped while Perea searched for his missing right shoe. Turns out it was on the Buffaloes’ sideline. A Manteca player picked it up and brought it back to the home sideline.
Once the Great Shoe Caper was solved, Enterprise marched 77 yards in 3:23, capping the drive on a 4-yard Jace O’Ravez TD run. Sheldon Highfill’s conversion attempt sailed wide left and the Hornets led 27-21 with 8:37 to play in the third quarter.
“When they missed that extra-point I thought, ‘Oh, there it is, there’s the break we need,’ ” said Reis. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t make them pay for that mistake.”
The Buffaloes nearly did make them pay. According to Laurel, they did make them pay. But the officials saw it differently.”
“We left it all out there on that field tonight,” said Laurel, who was held to 80 yards on 18 carries, and finishes the season with 1,869 yards and 49 touchdowns. “You can’t win ’em all.”