Zion Allen eludes Oakdale's Mason Gilton en route to a 59-yard touchdown with 28 seconds to play, giving Manteca High a 35-28 victory over Valley Oak League rival Oakdale in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, at Sanguinetti Field on the campus of St. Mary's High School in Stockton, Calif. (Samantha Schmidt/Front Row Preps)

Manteca outlasts Oakdale to win Division III banner on last-second TD

Joe Cortez

STOCKTON — Manteca High quarterback Hudson Wyatt connected with Zion Allen for a 59-yard touchdown with 28 seconds to play Friday, lifting the Buffaloes to a thrilling 35-28 victory over Valley Oak League rival Oakdale for the program’s eighth Sac-Joaquin Section championship banner.

After forcing the Mustangs to punt from their own 14 — the Mustangs had scored on all three of their previous second-half possessions — the Buffaloes took over on their own 41 with 42 seconds to play and no timeouts.

Overtime seemed inevitable.

But on the first play of the drive, Wyatt was flushed from the pocket and heaved the ball downfield just as he was clobbered by the hard-charging Brock Osmondson. Meanwhile, receiver Zion Allen broke toward the middle of the field to provide the scrambling Wyatt a target. He hauled in the pass at the 25, immediately breaking free from one would-be tackler, then outracing another to the pylon with just 28 seconds left in the game.

“It’s something we worked on with Hudson,” said Mark Varnum, who captured his second blue banner since taking over as the Buffs’ head coach in 2018. “Early on, he wanted to tuck the ball and run. We said, ‘Hey, bud, keep your eyes downfield, look for something to happen. Zion did a great job of getting open and Hudson made a hell of a throw.”

Allen, perhaps the fastest player in the Valley Oak League, called for the ball when he saw his quarterback in trouble.

“I just called for it and he threw it,” said Zion, who hauled in a 45-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter as Manteca raced to a 21-7 halftime lead. “Then I made two moves and got the outside. … I’m kind of shocked, but we got it done.”

For much of the first half Friday night, it seemed certain Manteca would, indeed, get it done. Then, all of a sudden, it didn’t.

Junior running back Blake Nichelson, a 6-2, 205-pound specimen who did not play in the Buffaloes’ 28-0 Valley Oak League loss to Oakdale on Oct. 29 at The Corral, set the tone immediately when he busted loose for 39 yards on the game’s first play from scrimmage, all the way to the Mustangs’ 24. A few plays later, Wyatt hit Garrison Reis from 4 yards out for the game’s first score. Nichelson had 62 yards rushing on that opening drive (214 for the game) and seemed unstoppable at times during the first half.

Oakdale (9-3) tied the score with 21.3 seconds left in the opening stanza when Jackson Holt found a wide open Mickey Merzon from 46 yards out.

The Buffs made it 14-7 when Nichelson busted in from the 8 with 5:18 to play in the half, then got the ball back 4:11 remaining when Oakdale went three-and-out.

But the Mustangs’ defense, not wanting to go down by two scores, stiffened and forced the Buffaloes to punt on fourth-and-28 from their own 26.

It seemed likely that Oakdale, slated to receive the ball to start the third quarter, would get the ball back around midfield with about a minute to play — enough time to tie the game or cut into the lead with a field goal.

Instead, Manteca’s punt bounced off the shoulder of an Oakdale blocker and the Buffs recovered at the Mustangs’ 45.

On the the next play, Wyatt hit Allen with a perfectly placed pass up the vistors’ sideline to make it a two-touchdown margin.

“It was a big swing” said Oakdale coach Trent Merzon of the punt-turnover late in then second half. “You could feel it. But you know what? I’m super proud of our kids because we overcame that.

“You cold feel it in the locker room. We had that look in our eyes like, ‘What’d we just do?’ You know, against a good football team, you make a mistake and it hurts you. But our kids got back in it.”

Oakdale opened the second half with an impressive seven-play, 61-yard drive that was capped by Jace Rau’s 15-yard TD run to make it 21-14.

Two plays later, with 7:18 left the third, Nichelson broke free for a 47-yard TD and  stretched the lead to 28-14. But he score came so quickly, the Mustangs knew they had plenty of time to recover.

They did, with an even more impressive 14-play, 74-yard drive that ended with Rau’s second TD of the game, this one from 4 yards out with 5.3 seconds to play in the third quarter.

Oakdale’s defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, giving its offense the ball at its 32.

On the first play of the drive, Holt hit Kevin Camelin for a 68-yard score that tied the contest at 28.

The Mustangs’ defense then forced another three-and-out and at least one Manteca player could feel it all slipping away.

“As soon as we punted, I was like, ‘Ooooh, I don’t know what’s going to happen,’” said Allen.

Oakdale took over at its 37, but a holding penalty and two false starts were too much to overcome. The Mustangs punted from the 14, setting up Manteca’s final play.