Competing in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs for the first time in program history, Central Valley High School's 15th-seeded varsity football team put a scare into No. 2 Manteca.
Down by seven points late in the fourth quarter, the Hawks' potential game-tying drive ended with a turnover in Buffalo territory.
Manteca linebacker Chase McKee's 69-yard fumble return touchdown lifted Manteca to a 69-55 win over Central Valley in the opening round of the Division-III playoffs Friday night at Guss Schmiedt Field.
"It stings a little more because we could have won," Hawks head coach Jason McCloskey said. "I thought we were the most dangerous team in the playoffs. We can play with anybody."
"We wanted it in the worst possible way," Central Valley star running back Ja'Quan Gardner said. "We didn't want to go out with a loss. We wanted to keep winning and winning and winning. Sometimes, it doesn't work out that way. I'm still proud of everybody on this team."
The Hawks compiled a program-best 6-5 record.
The Buffaloes improved to 10-1.
"We set our goals for the season; making the playoffs was one. Another one was winning a playoff game," Ja'Quan said. "We didn't achieve that goal. But we made the playoffs. We played hard. I had so much fun this year. I love all of my teammates."
Central Valley lost to Manteca despite piling up 669 yards of total offense, including 619 on the ground.
Gardner gained 378 yards and scored four touchdowns on 35 carries. He also tossed a 4-yard TD pass to Christian Romo.
Ja'Quan, a three-year starter, broke the Stanislaus District single-season rushing yards record last week.
He totaled 2,467 yards in 11 games. Homer Garza set the previous mark (2,195) in 1997 with Hughson.
Gardner also ranks first on the district's career rushing yards list (6,014).
"We'd make a mistake and he was gone," Manteca star lineman Billy Sharmoug said. "He's a special player; one of the best I've ever played against."
"Give credit to my teammates," Ja'Quan said.
Quarterback Kendel Johnson rushed for 221 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries. He completed 4 of 8 passes for 38 yards.
Johnson racked up 1,874 yards and 20 touchdowns on offense this year.
All-purpose player Angelo Bermudez caught three passes for 31 yards against the Buffaloes.
Hawk linebacker Ben Anitelea collected a team-high 11 tackles and forced one fumble.
Raul Godinez tallied nine tackles.
Sophomore Moses Ghiorso had one interception.
Manteca's Alex Laurel rumbled for 258 yards and five TDs.
Michael Gonzalez added 103 rushing yards and two scores on six attempts.
Joe Menzel passed for 200 yards and two touchdowns with one pick.
Brandon Dabney totaled 83 yards and two TDs on a pair of catches.
Central Valley trailed by as much as 20 points in the second half.
Gardner's jump-pass TD to Romo cut the deficit to 62-55 with 8:35 to play.
Central Valley had momentum in its favor prior to fumbling at the Manteca 31-yard line.
The Hawks had just forced a turnover on downs in Central Valley territory and were picking up chunks of yards on offense.
Angelo's knee appeared to hit the ground first before the ball came out.
Bermudez replaced Gardner, who exited the game a play earlier after scraping his stomach on the turf while being tackled.
"Ja'Quan wanted to stay in," McCloskey said. "It was my decision to take him out. I feel bad for Angelo. But a lot of people don't think it was a fumble. I'm not blaming the referees at all. Full-speed, it's a tough call to make."
Central Valley expected to win last week despite being the underdog.
The Hawks trailed 49-35 at halftime.
"We were up by three TDs and we thought it was over," Manteca head coach Eric Reis said. "What a crazy, crazy game. We knew they were super good. We saw them Week Zero and they definitely improved."
Added McCloskey: "They outplayed us. They deserved to win."
Manteca Bulletin Managing Editor James Burns contributed to this report.