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Buffs surge late to topple SFL power Rocklin, reach D-II title game
Rocklin-Manteca football
Manteca defensive lineman Isaiah White waves the school’s “Honor the Code” flag for the home crowd after the Buffaloes downed Rocklin 34-28 in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinals Friday at Guss Schmiedt Field. - photo by Wayne Thallander


Rocklin 7 14 7 0 — 28

Manteca 7 6 6 14 — 34


First quarter

M — Alijah Cota 7 run (Matt Kong kick), 9:06.

R — Mason Silva 13 run (Logan Pandis kick), 2:49.


Second quarter

R — Elias Brown 1 run (Pandis kick), 3:46.

M — Cota 6 run (kick missed), 2:40.

R — Brown 47 pass from Joey Roberts (Pandis kick), 0:31.


Third quarter

M — Blake Nichelson 4 run (pass failed), 3:58.

R — Brown 42 run (Pandis kick), 2:11.


Fourth quarter

M — Cota 4 pass from Hudson Wyatt (Kong kick), 11:18.

M — Nichelson 44 run (Cota run), 7:06.

Manteca wasn’t always at its best, but it was when it needed to be Friday against Sierra Foothill League heavyweight Rocklin.

The top-seeded Buffaloes overcame a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, as third-year starters Alijah Cota and Blake Nichelson helped lift them to a 34-28 victory that sends the team to its first Sac-Joaquin Section Division II final in 21 years.

“I feel like this is a major step up for the program,” Nichelson said. “We’re getting better, and this is a great accomplishment. They’re a tough team, but we came out, played our game and stepped it up in the second half and came up with a ‘W.’”

Manteca (10-1) meets another SFL power in the championship game on Nov. 25 or 26 at Sacramento City College’s famed Hughes Stadium or St. Mary’s High in Stockton. Sixth-seeded Granite Bay (9-4) knocked off SFL rival Del Oro, the No. 2 seed, 21-16 in the other semifinal.

The Buffaloes are vying for their ninth Section crown. They claimed their first in 2001 under Joe Miller, the last year the program competed in the Division II playoffs. They’ve since won seven more in Divisions III and IV.

“I think we proved we can play with anybody,” Manteca coach Mark Varnum said. “This wasn’t our best performance tonight. Beating a team like that and still having something left in the tank, it’s pretty exciting to be so close to what we’re hoping we can accomplish next week and beyond.”

The Florida State-bound Nichelson put Manteca ahead for good Friday with a 44-yard breakaway scamper with 7:06 remaining, separating from safety Austin Adams with a brutal stiff-arm in the open field.

A four-star rated linebacker, Nichelson was mostly shut down on the ground in the first half against No. 4 Rocklin’s stout defense. He finished with 172 rushes and two touchdowns on 24 carries to go with five catches and 79 receiving yards. Nichelson also had a sack on defense.

“Over time, I’m just going to keep getting better and better,” Nichelson said. “They kept talking trash, so we had to turn up and show them who the four star is. They were out there saying, ‘Four star who?’ Well, a four star just beat you, so the talk ain’t cheap. They thought it would get to me, but I was laughing about it.”

Manteca ground out 331 rushing yards and 419 total. It was the most points and yards given up by Rocklin all season. Quarterback Hudson Wyatt was efficient with his few opportunities, completing seven of eight passes for 88 yards and a touchdown.

The Buffaloes were able burn the final 5 minutes, 31 seconds off the clock on strength of its balanced and punishing running game.

“Coach (Brian) Rohles is a brilliant offensive mind, but at heart he’s an old school Manteca lineman, man,” Varnum said of his offensive coordinator. “When the chips are down, let’s get nasty, let’s get dirty and let’s pound the rock. We love to close the show that way.”

Bryson Davis and Cota also played a big part in it. Davis rushed 13 times for 79 yards, while Cota plowed his way to 64 yards on 11 carries. Cota’s first two touches went for short-yardage touchdowns, and his third was a 4-yard catch on fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter. He later tacked on the Buffaloes’ final two points of the night with a conversion run.

“It was my time,” Cota said. “Everyone was keying on Blake and Bryson, obviously, because they just dominate every game. It was just my turn to do something on offense and help carry the team.”

Cota and sophomore lineman Isaiah White led the defense with six tackles each. The imposing tandem combined for a big fourth-and-1 stop on Rocklin’s opening drive of the second half.

“He acted like a ‘Shep’ tonight,” Varnum said of Cota. “Shep” is short for Shepherd, a title long entrusted to the unquestioned team leader each year. “He acted the way a three-year starter and a captain should act. He demanded the ball, he wanted the ball in his hands and he led on us on defense. I’m super proud of that kid tonight.”

Manteca’s win-clinching drive was set up by a big three-and-out stop from the defense capped by sophomore Chris Chavez’s pass break-up against Mavrik Collins, Rocklin’s sophomore standout receiver.

Rocklin (8-4) was as advertised.

The Thunder rode its power-back pairing of Elias Brown (12 rushes, 120 yards, two TDs; receiving TD) and Mason Silva (10-43-1), while quarterback Joey Roberts (13 of 21, 147 yards) effectively spread the wealth to seven different receivers.

Rocklin went into halftime with a 21-13 lead and all the momentum.

With about a minute left in the second quarter, Roberts somehow avoided a pass rush from Mason Gibson and Dylan Gulseth and scrambled for a 12-yard gain on second-and-23. On the next play, Roberts delivered a screen pass to Brown, who scored from 47 yards out on his third reception of the season.

“I’m so happy with the way we responded,” Varnum said. “They got their butts chewed at halftime. We made a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half, and I told them you need to turn it around or we’re going to be home next week.

“Both coaches (defensive coordinator Rick James and Rohles) made awesome adjustments at halftime, and the kids listened, responded and did their job. And now we’re going to the ’ship.”