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D-II final a matchup of mirror images
Storied programs Manteca, Granite Bay meet for first time since 2021 on Saturday
Rocklin-Manteca football
Manteca’s Blake Nichelson looks for an opening against Rocklin defenders Eli Hardy (20), Keon Bell (65), Derek Houston (5) and Kyle Hall (3) in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinal last Friday, Nov. 18 at Guss Schmiedt Field. - photo by Wayne Thallander


WHO: No. 6 Granite Bay (9-4) vs. No. 1 Manteca (10-1)

WHAT: Sac-Joaquin Section Division II final

WHEN: Saturday, 6 p.m. kickoff

WHERE: Hughes Stadium, Sacramento City College   

ADMISSION: $15 general admission, $12 senior citizens/military, $8 high school students with I.D., children 5-under free

Manteca and Granite Bay’s current players were not even alive the last time their schools squared off.

They’ll meet Saturday at Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.

Rocklin-Manteca football
Alijah Cota (5) raises a fist in the air after Manteca ran out the clock with a kneel-down in its 34-28 victory over visiting Rocklin on Friday.
Even though these storied programs have not clashed in 21 years, Manteca coach Mark Varnum said the Grizzlies look all too familiar on film. That’s because the two run similar offenses and defenses, while priding themselves on physical play at every level of the field.

“They want to do what we do; they want to run the ball and play good defense,” Varnum said. “It’s going to be about who does it better.”

His Buffaloes (10-1), the top seed, are in the Division II bracket for the first time since 2001. That so happened to be when they last played Granite Bay, winning the semifinal matchup 14-0 before downing Del Oro 21-0 to capture the first of their eight Section championships.

Manteca is 8-4 in Section finals, earning the next seven in Divisions III and IV. Granite Bay has won six of its seven title-round appearances, winning two in Division I and the rest in II.

The No. 6 Grizzlies (9-4) have had an up-and-down season but peaking at the right time. They opened with impressive 34-12 win over eventual Delta League champion Elk Grove 34-12 and later Monticello Athletic League champ Vacaville, 35-13.

Granite Bay went on to drop four straight to start the Sierra Foothill League, arguably the top public-schools league in Northern California. Last week, the Grizzlies avenged one of those losses with a 27-16 triumph at No. 2 Del Oro. Two-way standout Frank Cusano compiled 16 tackles, four for losses, a sack, forced fumble, 27-yard touchdown reception and another touchdown on a fumble recovery in the end zone as time expired.

For the season, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound tight end and inside linebacker has 20 receptions, 409 yards and three touchdowns, and 97 tackles with 15.5 for losses.

The Grizzlies started their postseason run with a 24-14 win over Inderkum, then grounded No. 3 Downey’s potent attack, 42-24.

Two underclassmen star in Granite Bay’s power-running attack, and they each already hold four offers from NCAA Division I programs. Sophomore Carter Jackson has racked up more than 2,000 all-purpose yards (1,503 rushing, 281 receiving) and 25 touchdowns (21 rushing, one punt return). Freshman Isaiah Ene is making an impact on both offense (715 yards, seven TDs) and defense (63 tackles, five interceptions). They combined for 187 of their team’s 301 total yards against Del Oro.

“They’re both explosive athletes,” Varnum said. “They’re young dues, but when watching them you wouldn’t know that one is a sophomore and the other is a freshman”

While the Grizzlies’ preference is to run, they’re also a threat in the air with 6-4, 210-pound senior McCade Long (1,303 yards, 12 TDs, interception) behind center. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in the semifinal. Sophomore Joseph Cattolico (28 receptions, 440 yards, four TDs and Carson Perry-Smith (12-347-4) are his outside targets.

In the trenches, Granite Bay is large and experienced with the likes of 6-3, 235-pound guard/defensive tackle Kameron Kaminski (nine sacks) and 6-2, 330-pound Zaire Collier.

“We also rely on our big boys up front on both sides of the ball,” Varnum said. “We have to continue to do what got us here, do things right like keep our pad level down and play to the whistle. When they do that, good things happen.”

The Buffs counter with Dylan Gulseth (6-3, 285), Bryson McMichael (6-4, 310), Christopher King (6-2, 265) and Mason Gibson (6-0, 250). They have paved the way for two 1,000-yard rushers in Florida State-bound Blake Nichelson (1,329 yards, 22 TDs) and Bryson Davis (1,029 yards, 15 TDs). Fullback/linebacker Alijah Cota played a big part in Manteca’s 34-28 comeback win over Rocklin last week, scoring two rushing touchdowns, one receiving and a two-point conversion. The Buffaloes were down nine points going into the final period.

“The kid wants the ball, and he’s a guy you don’t want to tackle 15-20 times a game,” Varnum said. “Obviously, Blake is going to get his and we do different things with him and Bryson, but Cota can hurt you, too. He has really become a leader of the group and wants it more than anybody”

Cota and Gulseth were freshman who were brought up to the varsity in 2019 when Manteca last played at Hughes Stadium. The Buffs trampled Placer 33-14 in the Division III final.

“In 2017, we had an overtime win (at Hughes Stadium) against Christian Brothers in 116-degree heat, and the 2019 was a monsoon game,” Varnum said. “We’ve had crazy games there, and a couple of guys were on the sideline for the 2019 game, so they know what it takes. Hopefully, we have one more in us.”