The soggy eyes and faraway looks said it all—this one hurt the deepest. Faced with a chance to beat its rival and win its first league championship since 2011, San Benito fell short in a 14-6 loss to visiting Palma Friday night.
“It was a tough loss because we just wanted to beat Palma,” said Balers senior Isaac Regalado, who had game-high marks of four receptions for 70 yards along with three pass break-ups at cornerback. “At the beginning of the game everyone was talking about how this was for the league championship. But I honestly forgot it was for the league championship. Whether we were 5-0 in league or 0-5, I just wanted to beat Palma. It’s the bragging rights of beating our rival. The Palma game is our league championship.”
The Balers (9-1 overall, 5-1), who will enter the Central Coast Section Open Division I playoffs as the No. 1 or 2 seed and host a first-round game next week, simply ran into a buzzsaw that was the Palma (8-2, 6-0) defense. Although they were able to run the ball early on, Palma made the adjustments and limited them to just 27 yards rushing in the final two quarters.
San Benito finished with a season-low 231 yards of total offense, including a season-low of 106 rushing yards. This coming a week after the Balers totaled season-high marks of 537 yards of offense and 453 rushing in a 44-28 win over North Salinas.
“I give Palma credit,” Balers coach Bryan Smith said. “They’re stout up front, they congest the running lanes and they’ve got a great linebacker in No. 43 (Michael Zaragoza) who was knifing us all night. In a game like this, the team that gets in the end zone is usually going to win.”
And that’s exactly what happened in this matchup, as the Chieftains fell behind 6-0 early before outscoring San Benito 14-0 the rest of the way. Emilio Martinez, the star Palma tailback, overcame a slow start and finished with 176 yards on 26 carries, including touchdown runs of 13 and 1 yards. The Balers were only able to muster up a pair of field goals from Nik Hernandez, who came up clutch in converting from 34 and 32 yards away, respectively.
Simply put, the Balers will look at this game as a chance of missed opportunities. One of the key junctions—perhaps the defining moment of the game—came after San Benito took a 6-0 lead with 11 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the second quarter. On the ensuing Palma series, Michael Camacho had a sack for a negative-13 yard loss.
On the very next play, Dimarco Del Curto produced a sack that pushed Palma back near its own end zone. Tyler Ortiz returned the ensuing punt 32 yards to set up a first-and-goal from the Palma 8-yard line. In a defensive grudge match, San Benito could’ve put a death grip on Palma if it could somehow find the end zone.
It couldn’t. The Balers instead had two runs that went for negative yardage sandwiched in between an incomplete pass. The ensuing 28 yard field goal attempt from Hernandez never got off due to a problem with the snap. The Chieftains promptly marched down the field and scored the go-ahead TD on a 13-yard run from Martinez, a lead they would never relinquish.
One moment, the Balers were looking to put the game on ice; the next moment they were trailing and never had another golden scoring opportunity like that the rest of the way.
“We needed some points there,” Smith said. “I give our kids credit for playing hard to the very last play—that’s all you can ask of them. It just didn’t turn out for our side.”
The Balers took the game’s opening drive and went 43 yards on 10 plays before Hernandez converted his first field goal. Their second drive was even longer, an 11-play, 49-yard drive that bled into the second quarter. San Benito was having its way, having controlled the time of possession and giving Palma just one possession in the opening quarter.
However, after the botched field goal attempt, Palma controlled things up front and forced Balers quarterback Hunter Raquet into passing the ball 21 times. Raquet did complete 10 of those passes but also had three interceptions, two coming on the team’s final two drives.
“Within our style of offense, if we have to pass more you can see it was a struggle at times,” Smith said. “At times it looked sharp, but we didn’t do enough and it’s something we need to work on.”
Carson Schmuckle and Hunter Nye combined for 113 yards rushing on 28 rushes, well below their usual combined output. For some players like Regalado, losing to Palma was almost unfathomable.
“Coach always said if we ever play so hard that we can’t walk off the field, he would carry us off,” Regalado said. “That almost happened. This was a tough one to take.”