SACRAMENTO -- The Sac-Joaquin Section DII final initially looked like it was going to be a rout, but it turned into a nail-biter. Manteca narrowly maintained their lead over Granite Bay to win 51-48 and claim their ninth section title.
“It was a really hard game, but it feels great to be a section champ back to back,” senior Blake Nichelson said after the game. Nichelson, overjoyed, but tired continued, “it’s a dream come true to be able to get moved up a Divisions, be Division II and win a section championship.”
Nichelson, a four-star recruit and Florida State commit, stunned the Grizzlies in the first quarter with three touchdowns. The first came four minutes into the game from the four-yard line. The second came less than a minute later. On the kickoff return, Granite Bay’s Kai Randall fumbled and Manteca’s Jayden Ceja recovered the ball to return possession to the Buffaloes. On the next play, Nichelson reeled in a 25-yard pass to score. His third and final TD of the first quarter came at the 4:21 mark from the seven-yard line.
The Grizzlies’ got themselves on the board just before the end of the first quarter with a completed pass from the 45-yard line. The first quarter ended with Manteca leading, 21-0.
Alijah Cota was the highlight of an otherwise slow second quarter. Cota rushed 47 yards for the lone touchdown of the quarter. After Manteca was awarded five yards for Grizzly encroachment on the extra point attempt, the Buffs changed tactics and Cota succeeded on the 2-point conversion.
Manteca dominated the first half of the game and the score at halftime was a lopsided 29-7, but they began to falter in the third. “Obviously, you didn’t play a very good second half,” Varnum bluntly told his team after the game. In a reverse of the first quarter, Grizzlies Carson Perry-Smith and Isaiah Ene combined for three touchdowns to Manteca’s one (courtesy of Nichelson for 74 yards).
At the start of the fourth with the score at Manteca 37, and Granite Bay 29, both teams had their eye on the prize. At 9:26, Hudson Wyatt connects with Nichelson for a 39-yard TD pass and Davis completes another conversion. The Grizzlies answered with a TD each from Carter Jackson and Ene.
With Manteca’s lead narrowed to 3 points, Nichelson rushed for 24 yards before being stopped just short. From the one-yard line, Nichelson hopped right through an opening to score again. Kicker Matt Kong’s kick was blocked by Ene.
Fans on both sides of the field were going crazy as Granite Bay took possession with two minutes remaining in the game. The Grizzlies marched down the field, helped along by an illegal participation call against the Buffs. Just over a minute left, GB running back Frank Cusano scored. With the missed kick, the gap was once again three points.
Desperate to regain possession, the Grizzlies ended up sealing their fate. They attempted an onside kick, but wide receiver/linebacker Trevor Soares jumped on the ball before it crossed the 10-yard line resulting in an illegal touching of a kick penalty and possession was awarded to Manteca. Quarterback Wyatt took a knee and the Buffs took their second straight section title.
Varnum credits the senior leadership on his team for getting them through the second half. “That’s the only reason we won, the only reason we could weather the storm…is because of guys like Blake, guys like Cota, guys like Hudson Wyatt, who have the experience, the leadership, the heart,” he praised.
“This is the goal we’ve talked about forever boys!” head coach Mark Varnum yelled while celebrating with his team in a post-game huddle. “Bottom line is, I don’t care about what the score is…I don’t care about the stats, all I care about is hanging this on the wall, man! You’re putting a ring on your finger, man! That’s all that matters!”
The Herd is celebrating tonight, come Monday they will be laser-focused on their next challenge: the NorCal Bowl. Despite their 13 section final appearances and nine titles, which places them in the top 5 in SJS history, the Buffs have not yet conquered this hurdle.
Samantha Schmidt is a freelance photographer and reporter with FrontRowPreps.com. Her work has also been featured in the Turlock Journal and other Central Valley publications.