STOCKTON — The mood on the Manteca Buffaloes’ team bus following their Oct. 29 blowout loss to rival Oakdale was somewhat somber, considering it had just lost its third consecutive game, something the storied football program hadn’t done in decades.
At the time, it must have been of little consolation to the Buffaloes that they’d essentially played at the always raucous Corral with half their key players out due to injuries. It’s difficult enough to win in Oakdale with a healthy team, so the Buffaloes’ coaches must have known a 28-0 loss to end the regular wasn’t totally unexpected.
But instead of sulking at the next Manteca practice, coach Mark Varnum and his bevy of quality assistants challenged his team to enter the playoffs with a new mindset.
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“A month ago (at Oakdale), we didn’t have our dudes,” Varnum said. “As soon as that was over, I said, ‘that’s not us.’ Oakdale knew it, we knew it, everybody knew it. Tonight, they saw the real us.”
The “real” Buffaloes claimed a stunning 35-28 victory with a dramatic 59-yard touchdown from quarterback Hudson Wyatt to Zion Allen with 22 seconds left in the game. While the spotlight rightfully focused on Manteca’s Blake Nichelson all season, it was Allen’s two scores the Mustangs didn’t see coming.
Oakdale coach Trent Merzon, who has been with the program prior to the turn of the century, told me Friday prior to the section championship that he did, indeed, know.
Manteca is a much different team when Nichelson, a junior, is on the gridiron. Furthermore, in no way would his players be overconfident, despite serving a shutout four weeks ago.
“In 23 years, (Nichelson) might be one of the best players I’ve ever coached against,” Merzon said. “Everybody knows how good Blake is. But we didn’t have some of our dudes either (on Oct. 29), and that’s all our kids heard about after that game.
“We still won’t have our guy (Yahir Ayala) tonight,” he added. “And we lost our best defensive lineman two weeks ago. So no, we don’t overlook anybody.”
With Nichelson recording 52 of Manteca’s total yards on its opening drive of the game, certainly gaining the attention of the Mustang defense, the Buffaloes’ offense stalled at the 4-yard line. Instead of opting for a sure field goal by Eduardo Zambrano, and a 3-0 lead, Varnum’s fourth-down decision to go for it was certainly putting a lot of trust in Nichelson.
But after Manteca took a time out to set up a play, and all eyes on Nichelson, quarterback Hudson Wyatt surprised everyone but Varnum by instead throwing to little-used tight end Garrison Reis. Nichelson was the perfect decoy to set up Reis, the son of the all-time winningest Manteca coach, Eric Reis.
“(Oakdale) had to always worry about Blake,” Varnum said. “But as soon as you do that, we’ve got more guys that are going to hurt you.”
Manteca’s Zion Allen had just three catches, but two were electrifying scores that saw the senior wideout prove he could play at the next level. However, track might be in his future as since Allen holds the all-time school record in the 200-meter dash (22.25) set in June.
Said Nichelson, “Zion is a great player who deserves more attention that what he gets.”
Allen’s 59-yard, game-winning touchdown reception was actually a broken play not originally designed for Allen. But when Allen saw Wyatt scrambling, he cut across to midfield at the Oakdale 25-yard line and made a terrific catch. He somehow kept his balance — while also shedding two defenders — and raced triumphantly into the end zone with 22 seconds remaining in the game.
From time to time, I run into former coaches and players throughout San Joaquin County, as was the case Wednesday when I went in for a routine doctor visit. Instead of meeting with my regular physician, I was assigned to Dr. Mitchell MacCready Jr. During our visit I guessed correctly that he was an offensive lineman with the Buffaloes back in the day.
We had a good time reflecting on his senior season of 2002, when the Buffaloes reached the section title game but lost to Colfax. MacCready, who went on to play at Willamette College, Oregon, later finished his medical coursework in Philadelphia. He met his wife there in medical school and they decided to return to Manteca. She is pediatrician in Tracy,
“Mitch was a talented football player who was super smart,” said Eric Reis, whose first season was MacCready’s senior season. “He just had that cerebralness with that athletic body. What a first-year coach’s dream to have a guy like him.”
Neil MacDannald also coached MacCready for two seasons.
“He was so solid in every aspect: as a player, a student and a human being,” MacDannald said. “He’s a guy you can be proud of that came from Manteca High. I know when I need to see someone (a doctor), he’ll be someone I can count on.”
MacCready is the son of Mitch Sr. and Lynette MacCready, who was an administrative assistant for Manteca Dr. Craig Bobson, before she retired. MacCready’s brother, Tyler, was on section championship teams in 2005 and 2006.
This article originally appeared on The Record: Sac-Joaquin Section Division III: Breaking down Manteca's win