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BUFFS SPREADING THEIR WINGS
Manteca preparing for loaded Pittsburg squad in Division I-A regional
Granite Bay-Manteca football
Manteca running back Blake Nichelson runs through the gap opened by fullback Landon Chamberlain and tight end Garrison Reis in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship game against Granite Bay last Saturday at Sacramento City College. - photo by SEAN KAHLER

AT A GLANCE

WHO: Manteca (11-1) at Pittsburg (11-2)

WHAT: California Interscholastic Federation Division I-A Northern Regional Bowl Game

WHEN: Saturday, 6 p.m. kickoff

WHERE: Pirate Stadium, Pittsburg

ADMISSION: $12 general, $8 children/students/seniors 65-plus. Tickets available online on gofan.co.

Anticipating a deep postseason run, Manteca coach Mark Varnum scheduled five non-league opponents that run the spread offense.

None of them can match what the Buffaloes are about to face next.

On Saturday, North Coast Section heavyweight Pittsburg (11-2) hosts Manteca (11-1) for the California Interscholastic Federation Division I-A Northern Regional Bowl Game. The Pirates are 1-1 in NorCal bowls and came up short in this same division a year ago. Meanwhile, Manteca will be vying for its first NorCal win after dropping its previous five appearances — and all of them were in lower divisions.

“We wanted to prepare for this time of the season, but we’re obviously going to see a different animal altogether,” Varnum said. “They have talented skill players and they play at a different level of speed. We have to make sure to do things right and be in the right position to make plays.”

That was a struggle for the Buffs in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II title game last week. They staggered run-heavy Granite Bay early for a 21-0 lead, but the Thunder were able to capitalize on Manteca’s mistakes and youthful secondary to give themselves a chance at the end. Manteca survived, 51-48.

In the SJS semifinals, the Buffaloes overcame a lackluster start and dominated the second half to beat Rocklin, 34-28.

“We gotta put it all together,” Varnum said. “Gotta weather some of those bad plays a little better. There are going to be ups and downs in every game, we just gotta make sure it doesn’t snowball on us.”

And Pittsburg has the team that can create a landslide in a hurry.

At the center of the Pirates’ spread attack is 6-foot-5, 190-pound quarterback Jaden Rashada (185 of 292, 2,585 yards, 29 TDs, 11 INTs), a four-star rated prospect who has landed 32 offers from Division I programs. He ultimately committed to Florida. Manteca star Blake Nichelson, a four-star linebacker and all-around offensive standout for the Buffs, is heading to Florida State, so this could be a preview of what’s to come for two of the top talents in Northern California.

Oh, by the way, he is throwing to three other Division I signees and lines up next to a sophomore running back who is already getting Division I offers. Four-star receiver Rashid Williams (66 receptions, 929 yards, 12 TDs) is bound for Washington, while Kai Taylor (42-704-9) and Zack Card (27-476-4) are three-star athletes on their way to Boise State and Oregon State, respectively.

Elijah Bow (966 yards, 5.6 per carry, 14 TDs), a sturdy 5-9, 190-pound back, gets the bulk of the carries.

“We have one of our own in Blake, but they have several that can hurt you,” Varnum said. “They can take the top off of the defense or make plays in space.”

The Pirates have proven they can win a defensive battle, too. Last week, they gave up a field goal on the opening drive of the NCS Division I championship and shut down Clayton Valley the rest of the way en route to a 13-3 victory.

They’re anchored by a mountainous defensive line. Bradley Ruffin, a 6-0, 300-pound sophomore, is a space eater in the middle. He’s bookended by two Division-I prospects in 6-4, 225-pound Odera Okaka (92 tackles, four sacks) and 6-2, 230-pound sophomore Jewelous Walls (81 tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles). Okaka is committed to Southern Utah, while Walls has already received offers from Cal and San Jose State.

On the back end is where Pitt’s defense is getting the most attention, as 6-2, 175-pound safety Jadyn Hudson (64 tackles) is considered one of the best players in NorCal in his class. He has earned a four-star rating and offers from 17 Division I programs, including Georgia, Michigan and Oregon.

“Speed everywhere on defense,” Varnum said. “But we’re going to be us. There’s not a trick play we’re going to have; we’re going to continue to do what we’ve done the last 12 games. Nobody has been able to stop yet, and hopefully we can have the same result Saturday.”

The Buffs have good reason to be confident after knocking off two Sierra Foothill League teams to get to this point.

Pittsburg is no stranger to good competition either. In fact, the Pirates have played three NorCal Bowl qualifiers including SFL champion Folsom, which traveled from Sacramento County to beat them 23-15 on Sept. 16.

Pittsburg’s other loss was to nationally-regarded De La Salle, 30-23. De La Salle and Folsom are squaring off in the Division I-AA bowl. Pitt’s most notable win came against Division II-AA bowl qualifier McClymonds, 39-21.

Varnum said it’s an honor have entered the conversation with these NorCal giants.

“To be considered one of the top 10 teams in California, as far as bowl rankings go, the kids are fired up about it,” Varnum said. “But we’re not content or satisfied, we want to get it done.”

The winner takes on Liberty (11-2) of Bakersfield or Yorba Linda (14-0) for the Division I-A state championship on Dec. 10 at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.