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Buffs prep for semifinal with 2nd-seeded Lincoln of Placer County
Bulletin sports fall 2021
Manteca running back Blake Nichelson (20) sprints ahead of Sacramento defensive backs Devin Stephens (4) and Damarion Taylor (5) during his 41-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter of the Buffaloes’ 54-14 win last Friday at Guss Schmiedt Field. - photo by Wayne Thallander


WHO: Manteca (8-3) vs. Lincoln (9-1)

WHAT: Sac-Joaquin Section Division V semifinal

WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m. kickoff

WHERE: Lincoln High (Placer County)

ADMISSION: $12 general, $8 military/seniors (65-over), $5 students (K-12), children 5-under are free


Manteca has moved on from that worrisome three-game losing streak, but the Buffaloes’ next assignment represents the consequence of their worst slide in 18 years.

Those string of defeats at the end of their Valley Oak League schedule dropped them from a likely No. 1 seed in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs to the third. Now, they’re preparing for their longest road trip of the season.

Awaiting reigning champion Manteca (8-3) in the semifinal round is No. 2 Lincoln (8-2) of Placer County, a team riding an emotional high after dramatically notching its first postseason victory in 12 years.

Down two scores late in the third quarter, the Fighting Zebras scored 21 unanswered points including a go-ahead pick-six in the final minute for a 28-21 win over No. 7 Christian Brothers. Manteca’s quarterfinal was far more anticlimactic, a 54-14 shelling of sixth-seeded Sacramento.

Manteca had a first-round bye, which allowed it to rest some of its injured stars. Running backs Blake Nichelson and Lyon Colon were held out of Manteca’s Week-10 loss to Oakdale. All three of the Buffaloes’ losses are to the top seeds in Divisions II (Central Catholic), D-III (Oakdale) and D-IV (Kimball).

“We definitely got that swagger back,” Manteca coach Mark Varnum said. “It was a long, cold October, but we got some guys back healthy and a boost from some of the younger guys.

“They’re ready to be road warriors. Hopefully we can continue to play at our level. It’s do or die this of year and they understand that. They’re ready to get after it.”

Sophomore K.P. MacDannald, promoted from the JV squad, rumbled for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries in his varsity debut. Meanwhile, Nichelson did Nichelson things — 15 rushes, 204 yards, four touchdowns in 2 ½ quarters. Colon, banged up for much of the season, suited up but did not play. Varnum said his availability remains in question for this week.

Lincoln worked through an injury in its comeback win last Friday. Quarterback Johnny Bauser (1,260 yards passing, 15 TDs; 438 rushing yards, two TDs) went down with an ankle injury early in the second quarter and did not return until late in the third.

The Fighting Zebras run some spread but have two running backs approaching the 1,000-yard mark in Gabriel Burns (822 yards, 13 TDs) and Ryan Henning (800-9). Linebacker Jordan Wagner leads the defense, and it was his highlight-worthy pick-six that decided the win over Christian Brothers.

“They’re extremely well coached and they play super hard,” Varnum said. “They think this is one of their best teams they’ve ever had, so we definitely have to bring our ‘A’ game. They do the little things right and we have to be able to match that and match their excitement about being there.”

Lincoln finished as outright champion of the Foothill Valley League and shut out for of its five conference rivals. Its two losses came against traditional large-school powers Del Oro and Elk Grove.

The Fighting Zebras are 3-15 all-time in the SJS playoffs and are a win away from reaching their first Section final. The winner gets No. 1 Oakdale or No. 5 Patterson in the title round.

Manteca is in its fourth semifinal in five seasons and seeks its eighth overall SJS crown.

“Obviously, getting through the meat grinder that is the VOL prepares us for this time of year,” Varnum said. “All teams that are still playing have the same goal, they want to play after Thanksgiving Day and beyond. That’s what the league gets us ready for.”