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PREVIEW: Buffaloaded
Talented juniors join star-studded senior class for D2-bound Manteca
Manteca football
Manteca is led by third-year varsity starters Blake Nichelson (20), Alijah Cota (5) and Dylan Gulseth (76). - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin


Friday, August 19 vs. Vista del Lago

Friday, August 26 at Patterson

Friday, September 2 at Cosumnes Oaks

Friday, September 9 vs. Turlock

Saturday, September 17 at Damonte Ranch

Friday, September 23 Bye Week

Friday, September 30 at Kimball

Friday, October 7 vs. Sierra

Friday, October 14 at East Union

Friday, October 21 vs. Central Catholic

Friday, October 28 vs. Oakdale 

Manteca is movin’ on up.

The Sac-Joaquin Section’s reigning Division III champion has been elevated to the Division II gauntlet for the playoffs because of the “continued success” rule. The Buffaloes claimed Section titles in four of the last five seasons, capturing the Division IV crown in 2016 and the Division III banner in 2017, 2019 and 2021. There was no postseason play during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the 2020-21 academic year.

 “I feel like it’s going to be fun,” Manteca running back/linebacker Blake Nichelseon said. “When you win (playoff) games in D-II it’s more rewarding because it’s against better comp. Honestly, I like the competition, so just going up against better teams is exciting.”

Fifth-year coach Mark Varnum shares that excitement and believes the team is ready to tackle the challenges to come. To prepare, he added an out-of-state powerhouse to an already-rigid non-league schedule.

Leading the way are three third-year varsity standouts, and they’re reinforced by younger players with bust-out potential.

Manteca went 10-4 last season, starting on a seven-game win streak before lositng its final three Valley Oak League contests with injuries to key players, including Nichelson. The Buffaloes regained their form in the playoffs, avenging the Week 10 loss to Oakdale in the SJS Division III final. They went on to lose to Wilcox of Santa Clara in the California Interscholastic Federation Division II-A state playoffs, dropping to 0-5 all-time in NorCal Bowl Games.

“That’s the biggest thing for us,” Varnum said. “We’re bringing back tons of experience, and we have a chance to be special because the younger guys coming up are from a very talented JV team. We’re pretty pumped about that.”

Here’s a deep dive into the 2022 Buffaloes:


Manteca football
- photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin
Standouts: It starts with the Buffaloes’ Big Three of Nichelson, Alijah Cota and Dylan Gulseth.

A four-star outside linebacker, Nichelson is one of the top-rated players in the nation for the position, and he’s coming off a program record-breaking year on offense with 2,316 yards from scrimmage (1,876 rushing) and a state-high 288 points (44 touchdowns).

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cota is a three-star linebacker but will also get reps as an edge rusher for the Buffs. He will again split time at fullback and tight end on offense.

Gulseth, whom Varnum calls “a coach’s dream,” is an athletic 6-3, 285-pound offensive tackle. All-VOL first-team defensive lineman Mason Gibson will play more offense this season at guard alongside Gulseth, giving the Buffs a formidable tandem on the left side.

“I think this year’s line is a lot stronger,” Gulseth said. “Our run blocking will be even better.”

Tight end Garrison Reis will play a part as both blocker and playmaker after earning All-VOL second-team honors as a sophomore. He started the year at quarterback as Hudson Wyatt sat out half the regular season per SJS transfer rules. Reis also plays linebacker.  

Varnum expects a big year out of Wyatt, who had clutch moments in the thrilling homecoming overtime win against East Union and Section-clinching victory over Oakdale.

“What I’ve been most pleased with over the spring and summer is how much Hudson has developed,” Varnum said. “He has always had great quarterback instincts, but he’s really now mastering the offense and taking on a leadership role. I think he’ll have a phenomenal season, and we’re excited he gets to be under center Week 1.”


On the rise: Two late-season call-ups from the 9-1 JV team paid immediate dividends for Manteca.  

Now a junior, Kaden MacDannald made his varsity debut in the Buffaloes’ second-round blowout of Sacramento, rushing for 157 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll play running back and slot receiver as well as free safety for the defense’s young secondary.

Lineman Isaiah White was one of the team’s most productive defensive players down the stretch before a knee injury in the SJS final ended his breakout freshman campaign. Receiver/cornerbacks Eddie Anthony and Chris Chavez are other sophomores getting the varsity nod.

Tommy Perea started at linebacker as a sophomore last year but missed most of the season with a knee injury. He returned in time to aid the team’s title march.

At 6-3, 290, junior Bryson McMichael adds girth up front at right tackle. Bryson Davis is playing his first season of high school football, but Varnum believes the 6-1 junior has the natural talent to be a factor at running back and cornerback.

“Between Bryson and Kaden, any other year they’re the No. 1 every-down back, but we happen to already have a guy (in Nichelson) there,” Varnum said.


Schedule: There are no cakewalks leading up to the VOL for Manteca.

Two are strong Sacramento-area opponents (Cosumnes Oaks, Vista del Lago), and two others are longtime contenders (Turlock, Patterson) from the southern end of the SJS.

With Weston Ranch leaving the VOL, that opened up another non-league spot in Manteca’s schedule and the Buffs used the opportunity to connect with Reno-based juggernaut Damonte Ranch. The Mustangs regularly take on top NorCal programs, and this year they’ve targeted San Joaquin County with Lodi and Escalon also penciled in. Manteca makes the trip across state lines Saturday, Sept. 17.


Outlook: The road to that elusive state championship has only gotten tougher for Manteca.

Facing Division I-II-level teams at the outset, the Buffaloes will find out right away where they stand. Longtime rival Oakdale, SJS D-II champ Central Catholic (now in Division I) and emerging East Union will be their biggest tests in VOL play. They’re 0-7 against CC, since the Raiders joined the VOL in 2014.

The Buffs do have history of upper-level success in the postseason. The last time they were in Division II, they defeated Del Oro for the 2001 title — the first of the program’s eight.

“The kids are really bought into (competing in) D-II,” Varnum said. “We’re going to do what we do. It doesn’t matter if they put us in the NFC West, we’re going to play Manteca football.”