MANTECA – The Central Catholic High Raiders chanted “VOL! VOL!” Friday night in a delirious postgame celebration that, whether or not they admitted it, hinted at disbelief.
Why? They had just allowed 413 rushing yards and seven touchdowns by Manteca senior Blake Nichelson – smashing his own school record for yards and tying it for TDs -- and still surged from behind to win 56-49. A large crowd at Guss Schmiedt Field exited in various phases of shock.
“It’s one of the best high school games I’ve ever been involved in. I almost had a heart attack,” CC veteran coach Roger Canepa said. “That’s a huge win for us. I’m proud of them.”
Central Catholic (5-4, 4-0), heavily favored in next week’s regular-season finale against Sierra, have clinched at least a Valley Oak League co-title and will seek the outright crown.
The Raiders answered Nichelson’s brilliance with the arm of junior quarterback Tyler Wentworth, who threw for 217 yards and three second-half touchdowns, and senior Tyler Jacklich, who pounded for 163 yards and four touchdowns.
Jacklich even tossed a 22-yard dime to Wentworth – the latter a Division I baseball prospect – to set up Central Catholic’s final touchdown. Jacklich’s 3-yard rip increased Central Catholic’s lead to 56-42 with 4:45 left.
Nichelson, one of California’s premier talents and bound for Florida State, romped 39 yards to close the margin to 56-49. But Central Catholic ticked away the final 3:14 with one hard-earned first down. Defense took a back seat this night, but the Raiders’ balance ultimately prevailed.
“It comes back to mentality,” said Jacklich, a 195-pounder who delivered most of the blows in a 29-carry workload. “My whole team had heart. We don’t let anything affect us.”
Jacklich referred indirectly to Central Catholic’s launch-pad explosion to start the bizarre night. Wentworth’s first pass was intercepted, and Jacklich’s second carry resulted in a fumble. Both turnovers were collected by Manteca sophomore Chris Chavez.
Before the teams worked up a sweat, Manteca led 20-7 and appeared on the verge of a rout not unlike its first seven victories.
Nichelson, an angular 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds – clearly the best player on the field – runs with a smooth and deceptive gait. Before he notched seven carries, he romped into the end zone three times. Better still, the CC defense hardly laid a hand on him.
Overall, his touchdowns covered 56, 3, 35, 48, 26, 35 and 39 yards, and he needed only 26 attempts. Nichelson did everything except mow the field and lead the cheers.
“We came up short and they are a really good team,” Nichelson said. “This is the first actual game where we just got challenged. I feel our guys just weren’t ready for that.”
True enough. Manteca (3-1, 7-1) was locked into its first close game – with the VOL title most likely going to the victor – and the Buffaloes blinked in the second half after a 34-28 lead at the break.
Central Catholic parlayed Manteca’ special-teams errors into points. The Raiders blunted the Buffaloes’ fast start when Teaalo Bullock took a short kick and raced 65 yards past the CC bench for the visitors’ first score.
What changed the game, however, was CC’s 14 points within 10 seconds during the third quarter. Wentworth’s 7-yard play-action pass to Mario Savala III and Xavier Diep’s extra point – he was a perfect 8-for-8 -- gave Central Catholic its first lead 35-34.
On the next snap after Manteca muffed a pooched kick, the 6-5 Wentworth found Trace Hernandez on a post pattern 28 yards to the end zone. Wentworth, who also fueled CC’s drives with timely runs, completed 13 of 16 passes for 217 yards.
“This is the one I had circled on my calendar,” said Wentworth, whose team labored through a punishing preseason schedule that included a humbling loss to national power St. John Bosco. “This was the one I wanted.”
Manteca, 0-8 vs. Central Catholic since the Raiders rejoined the VOL in 2014, had its best chance to finally slay the CC beast. The Buffaloes covered some of their special teams miscues via two conversion passes by Hudson Wyatt to Bryson Davis and Garrison Reis. That said, coach Mark Varnum knew why his team did not end the drought.
“The game comes down to mistakes and who makes more of ‘em. We made a few more,” he said. “It’s a three-phase game (offense, defense and special teams), and winning only one doesn’t get it done.”
Still, the Buffaloes rallied to tie 42-42 until Wentworth looked off the defense and tossed to his left to Jaelen Nichols for the 62-yard catch-and-run that put Central Catholic ahead to stay late in the third quarter.
A potential game-tying 47-yard touchdown pass by Manteca was erased by an illegal formation penalty. On the next snap, Nichelson’s long option pass was intercepted by Nichols.
The Raiders responded with a clutch 80-yard march punctuated by a 27-yard lob to Hernandez, Jacklich-to-Wentworth and the decisive TD by Jacklich.
Manteca, once again turned back by Central Catholic, will try to salve the wound in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs.
For Central Catholic, which should advance to Division I, it’s doubtful any post-season win will taste sweeter than Friday night.
“We’re a second-half team,” Wentworth said. “Obviously, Blake (Nichelson) is a stud and hats off to Manteca. I think just playing better competition and being in close games all the time…(we were) just being prepared for this situation.”