AT A GLANCE
WHO: No. 2 Manteca (9-3) vs. No. 1 Oakdale (9-2)
WHAT: Sac-Joaquin Section Division III Championship
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m. kickoff
WHERE: Sanguinetti Field, St. Mary’s HS, Stockton
ADMISSION: $15 adults, $12 seniors (65+) and military, $8 students (K-12), children 5-under free. Tickets can purchased in advance at www.gofan.co.
For just the second time in the storied history of the Manteca-Oakdale football rivalry, the two Valley Oak League titans will clash in a Sac-Joaquin Section championship game tonight at St. Mary’s Sanguinetti Field.
The Division III final is a rematch of their Week-10 showdown won handily by Oakdale 28-0 at The Corral, but the Buffaloes (9-3) were without multiple key starters including multi-position standout Blake Nichelson. That result vaulted the Mustangs (9-2) to the top seed in the D-III bracket, while Manteca slipped to No. 3.
The Buffs ended the regular season on a three-game losing streak, their first since 2003, but have righted the ship in the playoffs. After a first-round bye, they trounced No. 6 Sacramento 54-14 and outslugged second-seeded Lincoln on the road, 28-3.
Oakdale has also been dominant, taking out No. 9 Roseville 40-0 and No. 5 Patterson, 33-7.
“During the Lincoln game, we were hearing that Oakdale was beating Patterson and that got us excited,” Manteca linebacker/tight end Alijah Cota said. “We really wanted this rematch. Now that we’re at 100 percent, we’re not going to be as easy to beat.”
Nichelson was the leading scorer in the state going into Week 10. He and tailback Lyon Colon, the team’s second-leading rusher, each sprained an ankle the previous week during the Buffaloes’ loss to Kimball. Nichelson has scampered for more than 300 yards and six touchdowns in the postseason, while Colon ran for 67 yards on seven carries in his return from injury last week.
The Buffaloes have had other reinforcements and on both sides of the ball. Freshman defensive tackle Isaiah White has made an immediate impact and made his second varsity start at The Corral. They’ve also welcomed sophomore middle linebacker Tommy Perea back after he missed the last seven games of the regular season with a knee injury.
Junior varsity call-ups K.P. MacDannald and C.J. King are contributing offensively. MacDannald had 16 rushes go for 157 yards and two scores in his varsity debut against Sacramento, while King has been inserted into the starting lineup at center.
“They’re good without those guys, but they’re difference makers,” Oakdale coach Trent Merzon said in reference to Nichelson and Colon. “We’re not dumb. The kids are pretty well attuned and have 100 percent understanding of what was being said after that last game.”
Merzon and the Mustangs have had to adjust to playing without their best all-around player in Yahir Ayala, their hard-charging fullback who recently had surgery to repair his season-ending knee injury sustained in their 55-0 win at Sierra on Oct. 8.
“We know what’s ahead of us and up for the challenge,” Merzon said. “We’re blessed to still be playing and have the chance to have our season extended another week. Months ago, nobody had us here and then we lost our best football player.
“He was our guy, and when we lost our guy that really took a lot of wind out of our sails. Kids have stepped up but it has been a hard year. We’ve had guys banged up all year and nobody talks about it, we just plug them into our system and we have been playing great football.”
Kevin Camelin has emerged as the go-to weapon in Merzon’s Wing-T offense. He burned Manteca for three touchdowns (one receiving) and rushed for 99 yards. The Mustangs also have three-star quarterback Jackson Holt, who holds an offer from Yale. He’ll be the only player on the field tonight with experience in a section final. Holt was a sophomore two years ago when Oakdale was stunned by Sierra 22-19 in the Division-IV title game.
“We just have to get lined up in the right spots and make plays,” Manteca coach Mark Varnum said. “They do what they do and they’ve done it for years.”
Oakdale scored all of its touchdowns against Manteca on third- or fourth-down plays. The Buffs have been dialed in on defense since. They’ve given up just 10 points in the playoffs, and the rest was surrendered on a lost fumble by the offense that returned for a touchdown against Sac.
“The defense played really hard, but the score didn’t indicate it,” Varnum said of Manteca’s previous bout with Oakdale. “I actually think they found their way that game and started playing close to the level of Manteca defense. When 80 percent of the offense is in street clothes it makes it hard. We had some kids step up, we just couldn’t finish drives.”
Oakdale’s defense — anchored by Brian Delte and Zach Stott — has been lights out, as well. After four consecutive shutouts, the Mustangs gave up points for the first time in six weeks when Patterson quarterback Jacob Guevara sprung a 65-yard touchdown run.
“They’re playing good football right now,” Merzon said of his defense. “Defensive coordinator Garrett Martin is doing a great job and the kids are buying in. They’re super young, but also super coachable. We made some switches in the middle of the season, shuffled the deck a little bit and it has worked out for us.”
These longtime foes last met in a Section final in 2017, with Manteca prevailing 34-17 to avenge a 36-15 loss at Oakdale. The head-to-head series goes back to 1923 with Oakdale leading, 53-45-4.
The Mustangs have won five SJS titles in 16 final-round appearances. They’ll compete in their ninth final in 11 years tonight, going 3-5 in the previous eight.
Manteca owns seven Section crowns in 11 tries. This will be their fifth final in eight years, and the Buffs are 4-0 in the last four.
“This has been the goal from Day 1 — practice on Thanksgiving Day and play for a Section title,” Varnum said. “Here we are again. Every season has its ups and downs, luckily we’ve gotten through ours and we’re back to playing at full strength.”