In one season, Manteca High’s new football coach Mark Varnum has chance to accomplish a feat even his predecessor could not.
For nearly two decades, Eric Reis, the program’s all-time wins leader, guided the Buffaloes to five Sac-Joaquin Section championships and three CIF State Northern California bowl appearances. In 16 seasons, Manteca won 150 games.
Yet, Reis left the most impressive feat to Varnum, his former offensive coordinator and lower-level coach, and many of his former assistant coaches, including longtime defensive coordinator Rick James.
Manteca sent Reis into retirement with back-to-back section titles, annexing the Division IV crown in 2016 and the Division III title last fall with a surprising rout of Valley Oak League rival Oakdale. After turning his alma mater into a football factory, Reis chose to leave the program with his oldest son, all-VOL lineman Kyle Reis, and a decorated class that included Harvard-bound lineman Justin Kakala and Northern Arizona quarterback Gino Campiotti.
Varnum won’t have the luxury of easing into a new role.
Instead, he has embraced the challenge — and the immense pressure that comes with talk of a three-peat, a rarity for public school programs in this area.
“We want to show out for coach Varnum, because it’s a new era now,” senior wide receiver Jorge Cedano said. "We want to show them he’s working just as hard as we are.”
Despite heavy graduation losses, Manteca remains one of the most talented teams in the southern half of the section.
Junior Ryan Ward, a highly touted pitcher, fills the void left under center by Campiotti, a three-year varsity star and 2017 VOL MVP. He has the confidence of Varnum, who has insulated the first-year starter with an array of weapons, including junior Trabron Russell, who has the ability to lead the VOL in rushing, and wide receivers Cedano, Jacob DeJesus and Kyle Lynch.
DeJesus isn’t the biggest or fastest slot receiver in the area, but few are as dynamic and explosive in pads. The 5-foot-7 playmaker led the Buffaloes in receptions (57) and receiving yards (711).
He’ll battle Cedano for touches. A high-profile basketball player, Cedano blossomed into a top target over the final seven games of the season, developing an electric connection with Campiotti.
“The person in front of me just can’t guard me, that’s how I think of things,” said Cedano, who has never lacked for confidence. “When I line up with someone, he’s the same dude as I am, but I think I’m better than him. … It’s Manteca football. That’s how they train us. Whoever you line up with, you’re better than. You better think that. If not, you’re going to get handled out there."
Cedano finished with 48 catches for 631 yards and six TDs, and Varnum said the long and lanky receiver could be targeted 10 times a game.
“It’s going to be hard without Gino. That guy did everything for us,” DeJesus said. "This year, we have a lot more weapons. … We’re all here to help him, because he’s not Gino. You can’t beat Gino how he was; he was a great quarterback. But we don’t need Ryan to be Gino."
Defensively, Manteca has more pressing concerns. The Buffaloes return just one starter from a unit that muzzled Oakdale’s vaunted Wing-T offense in the Division III section final. Defensive coordinator Rick James spent Tuesday’s practice defining the terms for his fresh, young cast.
“You’re either the hammer or the nail,” he barked as players crashed into one another, each trying to drive the other back. “Around here we want to be the hammer.”
Manteca’s bid for a third section title begins with a rigorous nonconference schedule. The Buffaloes open the season Aug. 17 with former VOL foe Lathrop, who has been realigned in the Western Athletic Conference. Manteca also clashes with Downey on Aug. 24, Granada of Livermore Aug. 31, and rekindles an old rivalry with Tracy Sept. 7.
The Buffaloes open VOL at Central Catholic Sept. 14.
Early on, Manteca will know if it has the team to make a run at a third consecutive section crown, and ultimately, the program’s first state title.
“The thing is, everybody thinks the class in front us was better and basically carried us.” Cedano said. "We don’t feel like that. We’re hungry. We feel we can get to where we want to be as long as we work as hard as we can. We're going to get there this year, we really think so."