As if he already hadn’t done enough during an extraordinary junior year, Blake Nichelson looked for more ways to contribute in his final act with Manteca High.
Somehow, he accomplished that and more, establishing himself as the greatest all-around player to ever come out of the Manteca area. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound playmaker raised his game as the Buffaloes stepped up as a mid-division juggernaut in the large-school ranks.
Nichelson repeats as Manteca Bulletin All-Area MVP after leading Manteca to a ninth overall Sac-Joaquin Section title and second in the competitive Division-II bracket. The Buffs campaigned in Divisions III and IV for two decades until it was promoted because of the Section’s “continued success” rule.
With wins over big-name opponents in the Section, Manteca (11-2) was elevated to another level for the state playoffs, getting matched with North Coast Section heavyweight Pittsburg in the California Interscholastic Federation Division I-A Northern Regional Bowl Game.
Although they lost 35-14 on a gloomy night in Contra Costa County, the Buffs are now in the conversation with the best of the best programs in Northern California.
“It’s a pretty big accomplishment,” Nichelson said. “The program has been Division III and IV for as long as I can remember, and we’ve built ourselves way up to Division I. I feel like being able to compete there is a big thing, especially for our school.”
It took a big-time player to help get the Buffaloes there. His individual accolades will be tough to match, and he has left with his name all over the school record books.
So far, he has been named MaxPreps All-SJS Co-Player of the Year, Sac-Hi Sports South Fall All-Around Player of the Year, Scorebook Live All-State Team linebacker and Valley Oak League MVP.
“It’s great to be able to accomplish all those things, but I honestly don’t pay close attention to things like the records because I’m just playing my game,” Nichelson said. “I don’t really try and break records, I just want to have fun and play my game.”
With the emergence of junior Bryson Davis at tailback, Manteca got to use Nichelson more at slot and wide receiver, which was actually his position of choice as a sophomore. He’d later realize that his future was on the defensive side, and it is there where he continued to show his range this past season.
“I just matured,” he said. “I didn’t really know that much my junior year and just played one position on defense. I began studying more about the plays and was able to play three positions on both sides of the ball. I’d say that’s the biggest difference in my game.
“It was pretty fun being able to go out and make plays on every side of the ball. It gets exhausting, at times, but it’s fun to me.”
Nichelson’s two favorite moments this of this past season are the 51-48 win over Granite Bay in the Section championship, and his unbelievable individual effort in a 56-49 loss to VOL foe Central Catholic.
In both cases, he was able to shine against top competition. Against Central Catholic, he set a new single-game program record with 400 rushing yards while tying the touchdown record with seven. He was even in on 11 tackles on defense.
“That was one of my favorite games to play in,” Nichelson said. “Even though we lost, I felt like I put it all out there, and there wasn’t nothing more could have done.”
In the SJS D-II final, he amassed 292 total yards (218 rushing), six touchdowns (four rushing), 11 tackles and an interception.
“That was the highlight of the season for me,” Nichelson said. “It’s our last game winning together as a team, and being able to celebrate that with my team was the best moment.”
After leading the state in scoring last year, he finished second as a senior with 43 touchdowns and 266 points. His total points are 23rd most nationally, and the TD tally is 22nd.
While he featured at both running back (1,719 yards, 27 TDs) and receiver (703 yards, 14 TDs), Nichelson got to show off his throwing arm on a 48-yard pass completion in a homecoming win over Turlock. He also got to return some punts, returning two for touchdowns.
Defensively, Nichelson racked up 67 tackles, 5 ½ sacks and two interceptions while lining up at different spots, depending on the matchups. Mainly an edge rusher his junior season, he got to flash his abilities in coverage as safety and shutdown cornerback.
A four-star rated inside linebacker, Nichelson will get to focus on a single position at Florida State.
“I’m going to miss (playing offense) a lot, to be honest,” Nichelson said. “But I was recruited where I was recruited. These coaches know a lot better than me, and they know where I can be most successful. I’ll miss, but it’s great to play college football.”
It’s an opportunity for him to get even better.
“I feel like there’s a lot for me to improve on,” he said. “I have to work on getting more of a linebacker figure. I’ll have to gain some weight and keep getting faster. I’ll also have a better understanding for my position.”
He won’t have to wait long to get a taste of NCAA Division I football.
This week, Nichelson is in San Antonio, Texas preparing for the Adidas All-American Bowl, which will air on NBC this Saturday starting at 10 a.m. On Jan. 20, he’ll be featured in Honolulu to participate in the Polynesian Bowl.
Here is the rest of the Manteca Bulletin’s 2021 All-Area football team:
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Dylan Lee, East Union, Sr.
Voted as Co-Utility Player of the Year in the Valley Oak League, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Lee juggled many roles in helping the Lancers advance to the postseason for a second straight year. It was on offensive where he did most of his work as quarterback (93 of 180, 1,161 yards, 11 touchdowns), rusher (719 yards, eight TDs) and receiver (21 receptions ,321 yards, three TDs). Last year, he was statistically one of the most productive wide out in the state with 69 catches, 1,350 yards and 17 TDs. Rated as a three-star linebacker, Lee also lined up in the defensive backfield and handled punts.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Alijah Cota, Manteca, Sr.
A three-star rated linebacker, this 6-3, 235-pound wrecking ball was named All-VOL Co-Defensive Player of the Year and earned a spot on the MaxPreps All-Sac-Joaquin Section Second Team. Cota recorded 80 tackles, 15 tackles for losses, 2 ½ sacks and two interceptions but was also a key contributor in other aspects of the game as punter, fullback and tight end.
LINEMAN OF THE YEAR
Mason Gibson, Manteca, Sr.
The Buffaloes’ rugged ground attack benefitted from adding the 6-0, 250-pound Gibson to the offensive line at left guard. He was named to the All-VOL first-team offense and is a two-time first-team selection on defense. Defensively, he tallied 41 tackles, nine for losses, three sacks and a team-high nine quarterback hits.
UTILITY PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kameron Jones, Lathrop, Sr.
Jones finished as the Spartans’ leading scorer with 17 touchdowns — 12 rushing, two receiving, two special teams and one defensive. The speedy 5-9, 145 tailback/wingback paced the offense with 1,158 yards from scrimmage, 966 as a rusher. A season-ending injury to the starting quarterback forced him to play some snaps behind center, and he completed a game-winning TD pass at Ceres. Jones played cornerback on defense, contributing three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
OFFENSE: QB Trey Fasani, Ripon Christian, Sr.; RB Bryson Davis, Manteca, Sr.; RB Anthony Grady, Sierra, Jr.; WR Griffin De Abreu, Ripon Christian, Sr.; WR Nickolas Luna, East Union, Sr.; TE Thys Van Der Hoek, Ripon Christian, Sr.; OL Carson Bunnell, Ripon Christian, Jr.; OL Leland Crabb, East Union, Jr.; OL Dylan Gulseth, Manteca, Sr.; OL Bryson McMichael, Manteca, Jr.; OL Hector Meza, Lathrop, Sr.; K Ethan Schenk, Ripon Christian, Jr.
DEFENSE: DL Camryn Arriola, Ripon, Sr.; DL Jacob Kowes, Ripon Christian, Sr.; DL Isaiah White, Manteca, So.; DL Sean Teu, Lathrop, So.; LB Carson Sanders, East Union, Jr.; LB Grant Sonke, Ripon Christian, Sr.; LB Eli Terpsma, Ripon Christian, Sr.; DB Eddie Anthony, Manteca, So.; DB Jeremiah Green Lathrop, Sr.; DB Brady Grondz, Ripon Christian, Jr.; DB Jesse Ochoa, Ripon, Jr.; P Paul Barrios, Sierra, Jr.
UTILITY: RB/WR/CB Xzavier Clark, Ripon, Jr.