In a physical slugfest between longtime rivals on Friday, Nov. 26 the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final was decided by the passing game at St. Mary’s Sanguinetti Field in Stockton.
Manteca’s Hudson Wyatt threw for three touchdowns, including the game winner to Zion Allen with 28 seconds remaining, and the Buffaloes secured the 35-28 victory over Oakdale when Blake Nichelson deflected Jackson Holt’s desperation heave into the end zone with no time left.
Manteca (10-3) started its go-ahead possession with 42.2 seconds remaining after the defense came through for a three-and-out stop. Wyatt needed just one play to push the Buffs ahead for good, escaping pressure in the pocket and chucking it up to Zion Allen in the middle of the field.
Allen came down with it and shook a pair of Mustang defenders for the electrifying 59-yard touchdown.
Oakdale, which had defeated Valley Oak League rival Manteca during the regular season, was not able to get past them this time. With the victory, Manteca captured its eighth overall Section title and fifth in eight years.
“Heartbreak,” Oakdale head coach Trent Merzon said in summing up the finale. “Our kids played as expected, hard and all in. Little mistakes. Just like life, though, little things turn into big things.”
Merzon said his team missing its defensive end was a huge loss and it was almost a war of attrition.
“Manteca got healthy for the rematch; we had some key guys out,” noted Merzon. “Great heart though, great year for our kids.”
It’s the second time (2017) Manteca has beaten Oakdale in an SJS final after losing to the Mustangs in Valley Oak League play. Four weeks ago, Oakdale (9-3) rolled to a 28-0 win and earned the top seed for the playoffs, but that’s when the No. 3 Buffs were without Nichelson and other key starters.
“That was the real us — we knew it, they knew it and now everybody knows it,” Manteca coach Mark Varnum said. “We had all of our weapons tonight.”
For Oakdale, quarterback Jackson Holt had a pair of touchdown passes, Jace Rau had two rushing touchdowns while Kevin Camelin and Mickey Merzon each had a touchdown catch in the heartbreaking loss.
Manteca’s first TD was a 4-yard toss from Wyatt to sophomore tight end Garrison Reis, who started in his place behind center for the first half of the regular season. It was a tone-setting, opening drive for the Buffaloes, who were jump started by Nichelson’s 39-yard scamper on the first play from scrimmage.
The Mustangs defense tightened up from there but gave up two fourth-down conversions, the latter being the Wyatt-Reis score.
Oakdale answered late in the first quarter with Holt’s 46-yard toss to Mickey Merzon. Manteca recaptured the lead with Nichelson’s 8-yard run midway through the second period and took a 21-7 lead into halftime thanks to Wyatt’s perfect over-the-shoulder bomb to Allen with 1:01 left.
The final touchdown of the half was set up by a turnover on special teams, as the ball bounced off Oakdale on a punt and was recovered by Manteca freshman lineman Isaiah White.
Nichelson’s second touchdown covered 47 yards, giving Manteca its 28-14 advantage with 7:18 remaining in the third quarter.
Then, Oakdale’s Rau (five rushes, 40 yards) scored on touchdown runs of 16 and 4 yards for the Mustangs in the third period. Holt then tied it up early in the fourth, finding Kevin Camelin for the 68-yard catch-and-run.
Camelin, who burned Manteca for 99 yards and three total touchdowns in the regular-season showdown, was limited to 27 yards on nine rushes. The Manteca defense held the Mustangs to 104 yards on the ground.
And though they fell short, the Oakdale squad continued their hard work until the final whistle, battling back from the two-score halftime deficit to knot the game in the fourth quarter.
“Love this group and how hard they played,” said Merzon.
Leader Editor Marg Jackson contributed to this report.