Editor's Note: The high school football players of the year stories begin today, Dec. 31, 2022, with the Front Row Preps Large-School Football Player of the Year. The small-school winner will be announced on Jan. 1, 2023.
The 2022 Manteca Buffaloes, one of the best in school history, were led by arguably the best player in school history: Blake Nichelson.
Described by many as a “generational talent,” Nichelson guided the Buffaloes to a ninth Sac-Joaquin Section title.
The local phenom now has one more award to add to his resume: Front Row Preps Large-School Football Player of the Year.
“(This recognition) is something that I’ve been working towards for so long. Being able to see that work pay off, it’s great,” said Nichelson. “Whenever I’m on the field, I’m working my hardest. When you work your hardest, great things will happen.”
His hard work has paid off in spades.
A four-star national recruit with 21 offers, Nichelson committed to the Florida State Seminoles in September. The Buffs went 11-2 and ended their near undefeated season with a second blue banner in a row and sixth NorCal Bowl appearance. The section championship was significant. One year after winning the Division III title, Manteca High jumped to Division II, defeating a string of Sierra Foothill League opponents (Granite Bay and Rocklin) in route to the banner.
Nichelson looks back on his senior season with gratitude.
“It was a great season. I really loved everything the entire way, being able to bond with my teammates and play the game that I loved,” he reflected. “We had a great run in the playoffs. I’m grateful for everyone on my team, my linemen, and my coaches.”
“He’s a freak athlete,” Manteca head coach Mark Varnum declared. “With his natural athletic ability and his instincts for football, and how hard he works, you get something special.”
A three-year varsity player, Nichelson accumulated more than 4,000 career rushing yards, with 1,719 yards this year. In this last season, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound running back/outside linebacker scored 266 points, nearly half of the team's points and second-most in the state of California. In total, Nichelson found the end zone 43 times, including 27 touchdowns on the ground, 14 through the air, and two on punt returns.
Appreciative of the opportunity he had to work with a player as “talented and gifted” as Nichelson, Varnum was proudest most of his development over the last year.
“Blake was really amazing not only statistically, but he became a leader,” Varnum said. “He's always been a guy who leads by example. He lifted dudes up and got everybody to play at a higher level. I think he really matured as a football player and a young man.”
Varnum focused on teaching Nichelson to “be a complete player, a team guy” with an eye on the future.
“I told him, my goal is to win now while you’re here," he said, "but also to make sure you have success beyond.”
In little more than six months, Nichelson will travel 2,500 miles from home and step up to the next level. And he can’t wait.
“I’m looking forward to competing at that high of a level, getting more experience, and learning from these college coaches,” he said. After a moment, he added, “And playing in front of all those fans will be the greatest part about it.”
Varnum had just one message for his star player as he moves on: Just keep being you, just keep playing with the same passion and joy for the game you’ve had, and the sky's the limit.
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.