SACRAMENTO — Manteca running back Trabron Russell's highlights from the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game Saturday at Hughes Stadium include touchdown runs covering 55, 59 and 45 yards.
None of them rank as his favorite moment on this wet and windy night. Topping the list is his 12-yard run — much of it gained on second effort with defenders draped all over him — for a first down with about 3 minutes left, punctuating a 33-14 victory over second-seeded Placer.
“Everybody was on my back, I could feel it,” Russell said. “Getting that first down was the best feeling. I was always taught that the running back has to finish games, so to be able to finish the game was huge.”
The Buffaloes (11-2) came into the postseason seeded fourth but came out of it with their seventh overall championship pennant, third in four years and first under second-year head coach Mark Varnum. They also took a 2-1 lead in all-time SJS title games against the Hillmen of Auburn, who won 20-6 in the 1975 'AA' Division final but lost in the 2016 Division IV final, 50-28.
Wide receiver Jacob DeJesus, fullback/linebacker Angel Garay and Russell were all part of the 2017 team that beat Valley Oak League rival Oakdale for a section title.
“We lose this one, it's my last high school football game,” Russell said. “It was all on the line tonight. When I was a sophomore I knew I had more opportunities, and even though I was happy we won it didn't really hit me. Now, I'm with a bunch of guys I've been working so hard with for four years. It's just amazing to talk about having this goal and to actually do it — we did it.”
Russell accounted for most of the Bufflaoes' offense, piling up 225 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries. Manteca totaled 238, while DeJesus — the 2018 All-VOL Offensive Player of the Year and the Buffs' most versatile threat — had just four touches for two yards.
“He's just happy about winning and putting that ring on his finger,” Varnum said. “We tried different ways to get him the ball, but in this kind of weather you're kind of limited in what you can do. It was Tra's turn to step up and be the man. Next week might be a different story, but these guys play for each other.”
Garay made the biggest play of the night, part of a 20-point blitz in the third quarter. Placer (10-3), pummeling away with its Wing-T offense led by 6-foot-4, 230-pound fullback Hans Grassman (27 carries, 126 yards, TD), was on the Manteca 10 with 8 minutes to go in the third quarter. An 8-yard rush by Logan Groth would have been good for a first down but was negated by a holding penalty.
On the next play, Placer quarterback Martin Haswell dropped back and rushed a lobbed pass intnded for Grassman up the middle. That was when Garay jumped in front of the intended target for the interception, and he returned it 87 yards to give Manteca a 26-14 lead.
“I just saw the ball in the air and I attacked it,” Garay said. “Once it was in my hands I just started running and followed my blocker to the promised land.”
Russell got was already well acquainted with this 'promised land.'
Manteca had two one-play drives in the third quarter — Russell's 55-yard sprint on the first play from scrimmage in the half, and the 45-yarder inside the final 2 minutes of the period in which he blasted through a tackle at the 35.
Russell's 59-yard scoring scamper came on the second play of the game for the Manteca offense. It was then that he knew it could be his night.
“Really, it was my line,” he said. “When I got it on that sweep on our second or third play it was wide open. Usually, there's a defender in front of me, but no one was there so I took off. Those guys were opening holes all night.”
He also had a 1-yard touchdown with 10:31 remaining in the second quarter, following runs of 17 and 13 yards. The Manteca lead remained at 13-0 after Groth blocked the point-after kick for Placer. The possession was set up by a favorable gust of wind, which pushed Alex Bohn's high punt back for a 20-yard loss.
The Hillmen took over the rest of the half and got a key interception from Nathan Russell in between their two scoring drives. Jesse Whigam's 4-yard run tied it up with a 24 seconds left in the half, and Bohn converted the PAT to give Placer a 14-13 halftime lead.
Placer dominated time of possession and ran 70 plays to Manteca's 34, but the final score tells a different story.
“We had everything going against us, the weather, the rain, and in a ground-and-pound game that definitely favored them,” Varnum said. “Our defense was able to dig in and grind and made the big plays when we needed them. The way the line played up front and the way Tra got loose and did his thing, I couldn't be prouder of them.”
“No. 7, baby. Pretty sweet.”
Manteca 7 6 20 0 — 33
Placer 0 14 0 0 — 14
M—Trabron Russell 59 run (Kevin Thornburg kick), 9:01
M—Russell 1 run (kick blocked), 10:31.
P—Hans Grassman 16 run (Alex Bohn kick), 5:55.
P—Jesse Whigam 4 run (Bohn kick), 0:24.
M—Russell 55 run (run failed), 11:43.
M—Angel Garay 87 interception (Thornburg kick), 7:09.
M—Russell 45 run (Thornburg kick), 1:24.