LODI — The Sac-Joaquin Section put on its 12th Annual Championship Breakfast for the 14 teams that will compete in Section championship games this weekend.
Two Manteca-area teams — Division II Manteca and Division VII Ripon Christian — both earned No. 1 seeds and were on hand at Hutchins Street Square on Friday. The Knights will play No. 3 Woodland Christian Friday night at St. Mary’s and Saturday the Buffaloes square off with No. 6 Granite Bay at Hughes Stadium. Both games are at 6 p.m.
Dating back to 2001, Manteca has won eight section championships — one in Division II, five in Division III and two in Division IV — and have won three since 2017.
“This has been our goal from Day 1,” Buffaloes coach Mark Varnum said. “We’re here now and we have to finish. This is what we do. If we play in November, we play for section titles. We’re happy to be here, but the job is not finished until we hoist that blue banner.
“There is nothing like practicing on Thanksgiving. You get out there in the morning and it’s nice and cold, the fog is rolling in across the field and we’re still playing football. It’s a great feeling and Thanksgiving is all about family and this is our family, our football family. It’s always a great, great day with high energy. We’re really glad we are playing Saturday so we get that extra day. We will crank things up a bit Thursday morning, but it’s pretty special to be out there then.”
Hudson Wyatt, Blake Nicholsen, Alijah Cota, Dylan Gulseth and Mason Gibson were the player representatives for Manteca.
“I feel blessed to be able to be in another section game,” Cota said. “We have to practice good, play hard and watch film and I think we’ll be fine.
“Some people may think it’s bad to be practicing on Thanksgiving day but honestly it feels good because you know you are going on to sections and there are a lot of teams that don’t get to this point. It’s definitely something to feel blessed about.”
Ripon Christian has appeared in three Section finals — 2013 and 2018 Division VI and 2017 Division VII — and the Knights are chasing their first blue banner.
“This is a big deal,” Ripon Christian coach Phil Grams said. “It’s the Thanksgiving season and we are just super grateful to be playing. We have talked to the kids about how they are playing for their teammates, their school, their families, the Ripon Christian teams that came before you and didn’t get it done and those guys that didn’t get to play a full season in the COVID year.
“We have a great group of kids. We have a team GPA of 3.53 and guys that are learning how to work the right way. The last two weeks of practice have been as professional as they come on the high school level. They have been locked in, they have been focused and it has been a pleasure to be around those guys.”
Trey Fasani, Thys Van Der Hoek, Griffin De Abreu, Jacob Kowes, Derek Van Elderen and Grant Sonke were the Knights players on hand.
“It’s been a long process,” Fasani said. “We have been grinding since spring football and I’m glad to be here with my team.
“I am thrilled, very excited.”
Former NFL player Alex Van Dyke was the keynote speaker. A Luther Burbank of Sacramento product, Van Dyke went to Sacramento City College before attending the University of Nevada at Reno where he was a two-year All American and Big West Conference Player of the Year in 1995 with more than 168 receiving yards per game and nearly 12 catches per game. He was the first pick of the second round in 1996 for the New York Jets where he played three years before winding up his career with two years for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Van Dyke won just three games in three years at Luther Burbank before losing just two in two years at Sacramento City. He told the players not to live with regret, that once they were an athlete, they were always an athlete and the and the tools they learn in sports would be utilized in future phases of life.
With 200 schools, the SJS is the second biggest section in the state, and winning an SJS championship is on par with winning a state championship in 16 states.