Manteca High sophomore lineman Isaiah White raced to midfield with a school flag, whipping the home crowd into a frenzy one last time as he waved it back and forth.
Friday night’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinal between top-seeded Manteca and No. 4 Rocklin was nothing short of bedlam. The Buffaloes stormed back on the Thunder, scoring 15 unanswered points down the stretch for a 34-28 victory.
Rocklin stunned Manteca in the first half with running back tandem Mason Silva (14 carries, 65 yards, 1 touchdown) and Elias Brown (10 carries, 169 yards, 3 touchdowns) leading an attack that saw the Thunder go into the half with a 21-13 lead.
A bruising offense, combined with a defense that featured a blocked extra point and a fumble recovery, made the Thunder a legitimate threat in the first half. Brown, a senior, led the way with a 46-yard touchdown run to give the Thunder the lead, only to follow it up with a 42-yard touchdown to hold Rocklin’s lead going into the break.
The Buffaloes looked lost.
Entering the game, Manteca was 9-1 and boasted a point differential of plus-347. In their only loss, a shootout to the eventual league champion Central Catholic, Manteca led by a touchdown going into the break. On Friday, morale was low going into the second half, especially when you’ve led at halftime in each of your nine prior games.
“Probably the worst half of football we’ve played in a while,” said head coach Mark Varnum. “I told the guys, ‘Hey man, we haven’t played very well, and it’s a one-score game.’ We made some adjustments, our coaches did a great job fixing the little things, letting our guys do what they’re best at, and they responded in the second half and got it done.”
The Buffaloes proved once again that they're no one-trick pony.
With teams keying on Florida State-bound star Blake Nichelson (18 carries, 113 yards, two touchdowns), Friday saw two-way starter and team captain Alijah Cota answer the call. Cota had 11 carries for 72 yards, and two catches for 10 yards – the second of which was a crucial 5-yard touchdown on fourth down to get the Buffaloes off the mat.
With Manteca positioned on the Rocklin 5 and trailing 28-19 halfway through the third, the Buffaloes found themselves in a fourth-and-3 situation. In a gutsy play call, Varnum spurred the field goal in favor of risking it all for the touchdown. Hudson Wyatt found Cota in the front of the end zone, the point-after was good, and all of a sudden the Buffaloes were within two, 28-26.
With the season on the line, Varnum rolled the dice and won big.
“Coach (Brian) Rohles dialed up a great play," Varnum said. "We have nothing but the utmost confidence in our lineman. We have 3 or 4 dudes -- we put the ball in their hand and they’ll make something happen.”
On the receiving end, the 6-foot-3 Cota reached over the smallest defender to give the Buffaloes a heartbeat.
“I’m thinking, I’m going to get smacked from the back, I’m like: ‘I have a feeling this isn’t going to work’. They were calling out the play before we even ran it," Cota said. "I feel like I could’ve run a trap.”
Cota’s apprehension was short-lived, however.
“I’m so honored and thankful I caught the ball," he said, "and put us in this situation.”
Cota announced himself in a big way, on the biggest stage.
“I’m more of a get 5, 10 yards and grind the ball (type of player), and I’m just trying to demolish someone every time I get the ball,” said the 230-pound Cota. “I already knew they’d key in on Blake – everyone keys on Blake. I mean, who wouldn’t? I was telling coach Varnum, ‘Give me the ball, give me the ball, feed the beast.’ I can do stuff on offense, too. I’m not just a defensive player. That’s all I had to prove today.”
The Buffalo defense was lockdown when it mattered most, giving the offense enough time in one-and-a-half quarters to erase a 12-point deficit.
Leading the charge was sparkplug Isaiah White, who found himself in several big moments as the game reached its conclusion.
“We had to step up in the second half, we weren’t doing what we usually do in the first half," White said. "We got done (with the half), coaches got into the locker room and got to it. I’m happy for my team – I love them all. They’re my brothers at heart.”
9White, described as a player who “feeds off the big hit”, delivered more than a few in Manteca’s shutout fourth quarter.
“(Getting the big hit) makes our energy go up," he said. "It makes us believe we can win. When I hit, I hit with all my force – all my love, all my hate. I did that tonight.”
The Buffaloes punched their ticket to the Division II championship round, where they'll face another Sierra Foothill League giant, Granite Bay.
Lucas Stackpole is an intern reporter for FrontRowPreps.com. He is a senior at Sierra High School in Manteca and hopes student sports journalism in college.