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Manteca looks to get 1st NorCal win Saturday at Wilcox
Bulletin sports fall 2021
Manteca head coach Mark Varnum speaks with his team after the Buffaloes defeated rival Oakdale 35-28 in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game last Friday, Nov. 26 at St. Mary’s of Stockton. - photo by Wayne Thallander


WHO: Manteca vs. Wilcox

WHAT: CIF Division II-A NorCal Regional Bowl Game

WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 4, 6 p.m. kickoff

WHERE: Fitzpatrick Field, Wilcox HS, Santa Clara

ADMISSION: $12 adults, $8 high school students/seniors (65-over)/children (5-over). Tickets available online only at 

Manteca and Wilcox’s football programs are similar in many ways.

Both represent similarly-sized public schools with diverse student bodies. Both have traditionally employed power-running offenses. And both have been consistently ranked among the best in their respective Sections in recent years — Manteca in the Sac-Joaquin where it has garnered eight overall titles, while Wilcox owns three in the Central Coast Section.

The two teams will meet Saturday in the California Interscholastic Federation Division II-A NorCal Regional Bowl Game at Wilcox’s Fitzpatrick Field in Santa Clara. It will be the third time in the past 10 years that they’ve met, as they split their home-and-away series in 2013-14.

“Very similar programs,” fourth-year Manteca coach Mark Varnum said. “Similar attitudes on how we play on both sides of the ball. Should be a fun. It’s going to be one of those hard-hitting football games we like.”

Wilcox does have what Buffaloes crave — a state championship. In 2018, the Chargers lost the CCS Open Division I final to Menlo-Atherton, 33-28. That would be their only loss of the season, as they went on to defeat Capital Christian 34-30 in a NorCal Bowl and outlasted Kaiser of Fontana 41-27 for the Division III-A state crown.

Meanwhile, the Buffaloes have made four NorCal regional appearances in the CIF state bowl era, which began in 2006. They’re 0-4 so far, most recently falling to Oakland powerhouse McClymonds in 2019, 46-13.

“With this group, we really started talking about this Day 1,” Varnum said. “We went into the season talking about getting into the NorCal game and the state game. Lucky for us, everything has worked out and here we are now.

“The theme this week is to not just be one of the eight (SJS championship teams at MHS), but to be the one that wins the NorCal game and goes onto the state game.”

The faces the SoCal champion — Scripps Ranch (12-1) of San Diego or Valencia (8-4) — at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo on Saturday, Dec. 11.

The winner travels to Saddleback College in Mission Viejo the following week to meet the SoCal titlist — Scripps Ranch (12-1) of San Diego goes to Valencia (8-4) in the other state semifinal. Kickoff for both games is 6 p.m.

Wilcox is led by Paul Rosa, who is 56-22 in his seventh year as head coach. The Chargers finished as runners-up to Los Gatos in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League De Anza Division.

Like Manteca, Wilcox endured a rough patch this season, but both are now playing at peak levels. Wilcox dropped four of its first five games of the year and have since won eight in a row. Those four losses were to juggernaut programs in Valley Christian of San Jose, San Benito, Pittsburg and Los Gatos — they combine for a 34-10 record. The Chargers trounced previously unbeaten Menlo School 54-20 for the CCS Division II championship.

Manteca lost final three in Valley Oak League play to Central Catholic, Kimball and Oakdale, which are 31-6 combined. The Buffs did avenge one of those defeats, squeaking past Oakdale 35-28 in the thrilling SJS Division III title game.

The NorCal Division II-A Bowl Game features top running backs in Wilcox’s Luther K. Glenn (2,046 yards, 10.6 per carry, 25 TDs) and Manteca’s Blake Nichelson (1,887-10.7-33). Both squads have secondary ball carriers who are approaching 1,000 yards — Andrew Palacios (943-6.6-11) for the Chargers and Lyon Colon (805-8.3-10) for the Buffaloes.

Wilcox offers a different look for the Manteca defense, which has faced nine teams that run spread offenses this season.

“They run the veer and they run it very well,” Varnum said. “They attack the line of scrimmage and have two really good backs coming right at you. There is not a ton of mystery about what they do, they’re coming downhill and defensively you have to do your job on every play. Glenn is explosive, he has taken several veer dives to the house. If we aren’t in the right spots and not making plays he’s going to do the same thing to us.”

While both teams prefer to keep it on the ground, they each have capable playmaking quarterbacks. Armand Johnson (1,231 yards, 16 TDs, six INTs) spearhead’s Wilcox’s passing attack and is also the Chargers’ third-leading rusher (478 yards). Charlie Carson (670 yards, four TDs) is his top target.

Manteca QB Hudson Wyatt (653 yards, seven TDs, four INTs) will be starting his ninth game with the Buffs. The 6-foot-2 junior was held out of first five contests because of SJS transfer rules after arriving from Downey of Modesto over the summer.

Wyatt had his best moments as a Buffalo, so far, in the Section final, throwing for three touchdowns including the game-winning 59-yarder to Zion Allen with 28 seconds remaining.

“He has always had it in him,” Varnum said. “You saw it in his first game when he was cleared to play. In the second half of the East Union game (a wild 40-34 homecoming win), he was the one who brought it home for us.”

Nichelson capped that dramatic win over rival EU with a pick-six on the second play in overtime. The 6-3, 200-pound junior is unquestionably Manteca’s best player. He is also the Buffs’ leading receiver (381 yards, seven TDs) and a playmaker on defense who is being recruited as an outside linebacker with offers from Boston College, Fresno State and Oregon State. He has team-highs in sacks (7.5), tackles for losses (16) and forced fumbles (three) despite missing some time with a sprained ankle.

Middle linebacker Alijah Cota and safety Dylan DePrater tie for the team lead with 111 total tackles apiece, and Allen, a college prospect at cornerback, has 19 pass deflections.

Anchoring the Wilcox defense are linebacker Derek Aguirre (99 tackles, 10 for losses, three sacks), linebacker/defensive end Aliejah Diaz (51 tackles, 7.5 for losses, 6.5 sacks) and safety Daniel Escorza (89 tackles, five interceptions).

“Just a really well-coached, hard-nosed team,” Varnum said. “At this time of year there are no bad or average teams, only great ones. They’re definitely one of them.”


Manteca                                           Wilcox

10-3                      Records               9-4

64th                       State rank*        70th

8 (SJS)                   Section titles      3 (CCS)

41 per game       Points scored     34 per game

24.1 per game   Points allowed  21.9 per game

293.7 per game Rushing yards    287.2 per game

82.7 per game   Passing yards     101.6 per game