MANTECA — Sonora senior Ryan Puou walked off the field Friday night and wasn’t angry after a 49-21 Valley Oak League-opening loss to Manteca. Or not like he was after each of the Wildcats first three football games.
“I feel a lot better with this loss,” Puou said. “The others I was real mad. Right now, I’m feeling real good about this team. I think we got better today and we’re gonna have a good year.”
Puou spearheaded the Wildcats rushing attack, which had been plagued in its first three games by turnovers, against the Buffaloes. The co-captain broke out for 129 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries.
“Ryan was just killing it tonight, he’s so fast,” said Wildcat Zach Atwood, who made his first varsity start at quarterback. “He gets outside and he’s just gone.”
Puou’s first touchdown tied the score after Wildcat linebacker Billy Kiriluk intercepted a tipped pass at the Manteca 47.
“I read pass, I saw him throw it and it got tipped up right to me,” Kiriluk said.
Puou rushed for 21 yards and was horse-collared down setting up Sonora deep in Buffalo territory. Puou finished the drive with a 12-yard run causing a raucous sideline celebration.
“I got a great block by Kade (Barajas) and I just cut it up, ran straight for the front orange pylon,” Puou said. “I couldn’t believe it. At that point, I felt like we were in the game and there was no way they were gonna stop us now.”
That happiness lasted until Manteca’s Alex Laurel grabbed the ensuing kickoff. Laurel, gifted with explosive speed, raced 97 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
Laurel was the Buffalo offense Friday, rushing for 180 of the team’s 232 yards and four total touchdowns.
After Laurel scored his second TD to make it 21-7, Sonora put together one of its best drives of the season.
The Wildcats marched 80 yards on 13 plays, took 5:59 off the clock, and Atwood capped the drive with a 6-yard keeper. Barajas rushed for 25 yards and Puou 15.
Sonora was within striking distance at 21-14 with 5:43 left in the first half.
“Zach did really well,” said Wildcat head coach Bryan Craig. “He made a couple mistakes in there as a junior but he really managed the offense well. He kept his nerves under wraps, and had none of the ball handling things that have happened in the past few games. I’m really proud of what he did for us tonight.”
Manteca, well, Laurel, scored again just before the half to build a 28-14 lead going into the break.
The Buffaloes (3-1, 1-0 Valley Oak League) added to their lead with a third-quarter touchdown and then another at 8:16 in the fourth to take a 42-14 advantage.
Puou then electrified the Cats’ sideline and fans with a 67-yard burst down the left sideline to make 42-21 with 7:54 left.
“We played our hearts out,” Puou said. “I gotta give all my props to our line and our receivers, they kept all those big boys off me. From here, we need to learn from our mistakes but the main thing is to keep our heads up.”
“We finally came together as a team,” Atwood said. “With exception of a couple mistakes, giving the ball away, I think we beat them up front all night on offense. We were moving the ball, but we gave it up a couple of times. They’re big, they hit hard and they are quick, but I still think we could’ve had them.”
Sonora (0-4, 0-1 VOL), will return home on Friday after three consecutive road games. The Sierra Timberwolves come to Dunlavy Field and games in the past have been explosive offensively.
“Although the scoreboard doesn’t indicate it, we got better today,” Craig said. “I really feel that way. We know that team (Manteca) is a very good football team and they showed tonight, they’re big and fast, just what we anticipated. What I was proud of tonight was our effort. Our kids went in there, they knocked heads, they tried and worked their butts off. And that’s all we can ask of them. We’re gonna build off this game rather than go back to the drawing board. My coaching staff and I all stood on the sideline as time ticked away and said, ‘We got better tonight. We got something to build off of here.’ We ran the ball pretty well against a really good football team. We were in it there but we made a few mistakes in the second half that let them get away.”