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Manteca, RC get stiff road tests for NorCal Bowl Games
Granite Bay-Manteca football
Flanked by two-way standouts Blake Nichelson (20) and Alijah Cota (5), Manteca coach Mark Varnum holds up the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship Saturday at Sacramento City College. - photo by SEAN KAHLER

Manteca and Ripon Christian are stepping up in competition and on the road for the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regionals.

Manteca (11-1), which claimed the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship this past weekend, travels to North Coast Section Division I champion Pittsburg (11-2) for the NorCal Division I-A Bowl Game on Saturday, Dec. 3. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.

Meanwhile, Ripon Christian (11-2), after claiming its first SJS crown, makes the jump from Division VII in the Section playoffs to Division V-AA for

Woodland Christian-Ripon Christian football
Ripon Christian begins to celebrate its 28-16 victory over Woodland Christian in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII championship game last Friday. GARY JENSEN/
NorCals. The Knights haven’t hosted any postseason games because of sanctions and are on the road for the ninth time this Friday when they take on SJS Division VI titlist Hughson (11-2).

“It’s a huge opportunity to play one of the best programs in Northern California in one of the top three Bowl Games in the state,” Manteca coach Mark Varnum said. “But we aren’t just happy to be here. We want to finish the job.”

The nine-time SJS champion Buffaloes are making their sixth NorCal appearance but are winless in their previous five chances. This will be their highest placement in division.

Manteca owns a higher MaxPreps state ranking (24th) and computer rating (48.0) than the Pirates (27th, 45.6), but that doesn’t mean the Buffs are necessarily the favorites against a team loaded with NCAA Division I prospects. With about 3,600 students, Pittsburg has roughly twice as many as Manteca.

Pittsburg is 1-1 in previous NorCal contests, making the Division I-A state final in 2017 and falling to Narbonne. A longtime, large-school power in the NCS, Pitt has often had its path to greater success blocked by nationally-recognized De La Salle.

The Manteca-Pittsburg matchup will feature future participants in the Sunshine Showdown rivalry game, as Manteca’s Florida State-bound, do-it-all star Blake Nichelson meets Florida signee Jaden Rashada, the Pirates’ highly-coveted quarterback.

The winner plays Liberty (11-2) of Bakersfield or Yorba Linda (14-0) on Dec. 10 at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. State title games in the top five divisions — Open, I-AA, I-A, II-AA, II-A — all take place at Saddleback College. The rest of the 10 finals will be at host sites.

Ripon Christian’s pairing with Hughson was a bit unexpected to many considering they’re members of the same Section, though this has happened before.

Hughson finished as the runner-up of the Trans-Valley League, which has long been hailed as the best small-school league in the state. The Huskies are ranked 221st in the state with a 12.1 rating, while Ripon Christian checks in at 235th with 10.3 rating.

“Coach (Shaun) King and I are both surprised by the match-up,” RC coach Phil Grams said. “They’re a very good football team, and we’ll make the best of the opportunity.

“We have a theme every week, and this week it’s ‘joy.’ We’re so excited with how far we’ve come.”

On the southern end of the Division V-AA bracket are Palo Verde Valley (13-1) of Blythe and Muir (8-6) of Pasadena. The final is on Dec. 10.