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PREVIEW: Top 20 returning players to watch
Blake Nichelson
Manteca’s Blake Nichelson rambles into the open field in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinal at Lincoln. - photo by SEAN KAHLER


Manteca, RB/OLB, Sr.

One of the top-rated linebacker prospects in California is also one of its most prolific offensive weapons.

Nichelson set a new program record with 2,231 rushing yards (2,612 in total) and led the state in scoring (288 points, 44 TDs), even after missing the Buffaloes’ Week 10 game at Oakdale with an ankle injury.

As unstoppable as he was on that side of scrimmage, it was on defense where he earned his biggest accolades. The Valley Oak League’s reigning Outstanding Defensive Player is now on the Cal-Hi Sports All-State Preseason first-team defense. Nichelson racked up 52 tackles, 7 ½ sacks, 16 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and an astonishing walk-off, pick-six that sent the Buffs to a 40-34 overtime win over rival East Union on what was an all-around superhuman homecoming performance from “Thor.”

Whether it’s on offense or defense, all eyes will be on No. 20 on Friday nights. MaxPreps named him All-Sac-Joaquin Section Junior Player of the Year, and Cal-Hi Sports identified Nichelson as one of 12 Mr. Football State Player of the Year candidates.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has a four-star rating from 247Sports, which also ranks him as the 11th best overall player from the class of ’23 in the Golden State. Nichelson holds 19 offers from NCAA Division I schools. Florida State, Oregon and UCLA are among the favorites to land the Manteca area’s most sought-after prospect. He has been invited to participate in the All-American Bowl and Polynesian Bowl.



East Union, QB/LB, Sr.

Like Nichelson, East Union’s two-way star posted impressive numbers on offense but is being recruited for defense.

At 6-2, 215 pounds, Lee is a three-star rated linebacker who was among the top wide receivers in the state last year. His 1,350 receiving yards was second most in the SJS and 13th in the state. He also caught 69 passes and scored 17 touchdowns.

Now, he’s more of a threat in coach Mike Kuhnlenz’s spread offense. He’ll have touches on every play as the Lancers’ quarterback.

Lee is a multi-sport standout at East Union having played varsity basketball since his freshman year. He’s also a pitcher and infielder for the baseball team. So far, he has offers from Arizona, Columbia, San Diego State and San Jose State.



Manteca, FB/TE/LB/DE/P, Sr.

The Buffaloes’ 2022 “shepherd” — an honor passed down from one unquestioned team leader to the next — is primed for a big season, and it could happen at several different positions.

Cota, a hulking 6-3, 230-pound specimen, has no offers yet but is certainly on the radar as a three-star linebacker. He was named to the All-VOL first team at inside linebacker, finishing with a team-high 111 tackles. With Manteca facing so many spread offenses this season, coach Mark Varnum said Cota is lining up more at the line of scrimmage as an edge rusher. Nichelson on one side and Cota on the other? Yikes!

Offensively, he splits time between fullback (359 yards, 6.2 per carry, four TDs) and tight end (eight receptions, 82 yards, TD). Cota proved late last season that he can be the lead back, when needed. After both starting running backs, Lyon Colon and Nichelson, went down with injuries against Kimball, Cota exploded for 144 yards and two touchdowns. 



Ripon Christian, QB, Sr.

The son of former Ripon Christian head coach Randy Fasani, who was not too shabby of a QB in his day, Trey is primed for a breakout season with the Knights’ surrounding talent also returning. More on them later.

Coach Phil Grams has expanded the playbook of his fly offense to capitalize on the talents of the quarterback, who can make plays from in and out of the pocket. Fasani completed 50% of his passes for 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns against three interceptions last season while rushing for 259 yards (6.2 per carry).

The 6-2, 200-pound signal caller has earned a three-star designation from 247Sports and has been offered roster spots from multiple NCAA Division III schools.



Ripon Christian, TE/DE, Sr.

One of Fasani’s targets is this 6-9, 240-pound giant, who has drawn interest from Division I programs as a defensive end.

Van Der Hoek, however, is eager to showcase his abilities on offense and should get the opportunity with coach Grams planning to open up the attack. An All-Southern Athletic League first-team selection at tight end, he tallied 234 yards, and five of his 15 receptions went for touchdowns.



Manteca, OL/DL, Sr.

Gulseth is one of three third-year varsity starters for the Buffaloes, along with Cota and Nichelson.

The 6-3, 285-pound left tackle made the All-VOL second team and has earned an invitation to the National Preps/Champion Combine held Feb. 3-6 during the NFL’s Pro Bowl week in Las Vegas. He is also the VOL’s reigning shot put champion in track.



Manteca, QB, Sr.

Coach Varnum was most impressed with the improvements made by his signal caller during the offseason.

Wyatt played just half the season in 2021, because of SJS transfer rules, but arrived in time to be involved with some of the team’s biggest plays. He helped the Buffs win the SJS Division III championship against Oakdale with a last-minute drive capped by a 59-yard touchdown pass play with Zion Allen.



Manteca, OL/DL, Sr.

A standout on defense last year, Gibson will line up at offensive guard next to Gulseth, giving Manteca an imposing left-side duo.

The 6-0, 250-pound defensive lineman was named to the All-VOL first team after contributing 50 tackles, nine for losses.



Ripon Christian, RB/ILB/K, Jr.

Sonke was an All-SAL first-team selection in three sports (soccer, baseball) as a sophomore.

He shows off his athletic versatility on Friday nights as an every-down contributor. Sonke was the Knights’ leading rusher last year with 774 yards (7.0 per carry) to go with 182 receiving. With 13 total touchdowns and 42 point-after kicks, he was also the top scorer on the team with 120 points.

Defensively, he chipped in 41 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal.



Ripon Christian, OL/DL, Sr.

The Knights are leaning on their strapping 6-2, 220-pound leader after losing size and experience to graduation.

He made the All-SAL second team as an offensive lineman but was also productive on defense (44 tackles, five TFL, four sacks).



Manteca, TE/QB/LB, Jr.

Reis started his sophomore year behind center as Wyatt served his sit-out period and performed admirably (58.3% completion, 353 yards, seven TDs).

He made the All-VOL second team as a tight end (seven receptions, 96 yards, two TDs) and will play a bigger role defensively at linebacker this year.



East Union, LB/RB, Jr.

Sanders played bigger than his size (5-9, 144) as a sophomore and the rest of the league took notice, tabbing him as an All-VOL second-team inside linebacker.

He’ll get to contribute on the offensive end this year as a running back.



Manteca, RB/WR/S, Jr.

How about this for a varsity debut: 16 rushes, 157 yards and two touchdowns in a second-round playoff game against Sacramento.

“KP” is likely to get more reps at slot receiver this season because of the Buffaloes’ backfield depth, but his main responsibility will be on defense where he leads a young but talented secondary as free safety.



Ripon Christian, WR/OLB, Sr.

Lining up across from a 6-9 tight end is enough of a worry for opposing defensive backfields. They’ll also have to key on the 6-5 de Abreu, a basketball and volleyball standout who is a threat on deep throws and jump-ball tossups.

He was Fasani’s top target last year, finishing with 22 catches, 350 yards and two touchdowns.



Lathrop, RB/DB, Sr.

Giordano showed glimpse of what he can do as the featured tailback in the Spartans’ Wing-T late last season, grinding out 218 yards on 38 carries in starts against Los Banos and Mountain House. He had just five touches going into Week 9.



Lathrop, WB/CB, Sr.

The top sprinter on the school’s track team will have more chances to put his breakaway speed to use after he had just 14 touches on offense last year. Defensively he was a ball-hawk, breaking up 11 passes and intercepting one.



Ripon, QB/WR/S, Sr.

A golf standout in the spring, Vink is making up for lost time on the gridiron after opting not to play football during the pandemic-shortened 2021 spring season. He was also limited by injuries last year but flashed some of his big-play potential as a thrower, runner, receiver and defender in his few opportunities. If he can stay healthy, Vink could thrive in a utility role for the Indians.



East Union, RB, Sr.

Flores split carries with two other backs last season, and then-QB Luke Weaver carried much of the load for the offense as a dual-threat producer. Flores was efficient with his few touches (344 yards, 7.5 per carry, nine TDs) and was instrumental in the passing game as a blocker.



Sierra, RB, Jr.

Grady turned in an attention-grabbing performance (270 yards, three TDs) in an early defeat at Stagg and continued to carry the load for Sierra’s limited offense last year. Now a junior, he remains the workhorse back as the T’wolves transition back to the spread from the more run-heavy flexbone offense.  



Manteca, DL, So.

Promoted from the JV squad in Week 9, White made an immediate impact as a freshman on Manteca’s defensive line. He was in on 39 tackles and three for losses in just four-plus games. His postseason run was cut short by a knee injury in the SJS Division III final.