Football: Balers begin title quest

Carson Schmuckle finds the corner during the first quarter of Friday night’s loss to Palma. Photo by Nick Lovejoy

Coming off an emotional loss to rival Palma, the San Benito High football team needs to rebound in a hurry if it plans on extending its season. The Haybalers (9-1) earned the No. 2 seed in the Central Coast Section Open Division I playoffs, opening with a 7 p.m. home game on Friday against fellow Monterey Bay League Gabilan Division member and No. 7 seed Salinas (5-5).

“If we mull around and there’s not a lot of energy at practice this week, this thing is going to snowball in a bad, bad way,” Balers coach Bryan Smith said. “We’ve got a great opportunity to play at home, and the team we’re playing is going to be hungry.”

Of that, there is no doubt. Salinas gets a chance at payback after San Benito won the team’s first matchup on Oct. 14, 18-7. The Balers know all too well what it’s like to get a second chance against a team they lost to in the regular season, because in 2014 they fell to the Cowboys in league but won the game that counted the most, the CCS Division I championship game.

“It’s difficult to beat a good team twice,” Smith said. “I know they’re going to come in hot and heavy and ready to go. I’ve got to believe that Salinas believes they’re in a good position to beat us just because their free safety didn’t play when we played them. He’s really good and shoot, it was a close game to begin with. Plus, they’ve got new film on us from when we played North Salinas, where we gave up a ton of passing yards.”

A pair of coin flips helped determine this matchup. Since Menlo-Atherton and San Benito tied for the most power points (30), a coin flip determined the top seed. M-A got the coin flip, moving the Balers to the No. 2 seed. Santa Teresa and Salinas also had the same amount of power points, with the coin flip going in the favor of Santa Teresa to drop Salinas to the No. 7 seed.

When San Benito and Salinas played last month, the final score didn’t reflect just how competitive the game was, Smith said. The Balers were able to grind Salinas down, rushing the ball a season-high 67 times.

Although this might not be the most favorable first-round matchup for San Benito, if it can get through Salinas it would most likely play No. 3 Milpitas in the semifinals. Bellarmine, a West Catholic League power that throttled the Balers 40-7 in the semifinals a year ago, is on the other side of the bracket.

Smith isn’t looking that far ahead, not after the team absorbed a 14-6 loss to Palma last Friday. After watching the film, Smith and the other offensive assistant coaches agreed that the problems the team had offensively—other than the fact that it was facing a stout Palma defense—was its lack of following through on everything that has made it successful this season.

“The only word that comes to mind is execution,” he said. “We simply didn’t execute. The little things, the footwork from the QB, the effort of carrying out fakes and staying on blocks a little longer. There were a handful of plays in the first half that had we stayed on our blocks a second or even a half second longer, we would’ve had larger plays that could’ve broken a bigger play.”

Defensively, Smith said Palma did an excellent job of scheming and completely shutting down the Balers’ vaunted run game in the second half, which produced only 27 yards.

“We allowed their guards to get free releases up to the second level, and they were mauling our linebackers,” Smith said. “They were cutting and chopping some of our big guys—Richard Justo and David Cadena—and it really slowed those guys so bad they were more worried about guys on their feet than where the ball carrier was going. Credit to them—they schemed us pretty well.. … Cutting and chopping (blocking) if done properly and done legally is very effective. It was extremely effective on our two interior defensive linemen. They would cut with their tackles, and that would allow their guards to get on our linebackers. There was a point in time (watching the film) where I’m saying, ‘Gosh, our linebackers aren’t even relevant.’ I thought we were playing with just nine or 10 guys at times.”

Even though the Balers didn’t reach their goal of winning their first league title since 2011, they’ll have a golden opportunity to reach a state bowl game by winning the Open Division I playoffs. San Benito is as tough and physical as any team in the field; the question is whether it can learn from its mistakes against Palma and refocus mentally, starting with Friday’s tilt with Salinas.

“You can learn a lot more from losses than wins,” Smith said. “Hopefully we
do that this week.”

Although the team’s offense stalled, the Balers received a fine performance from kicker Nik Hernandez, who has been one of the team’s most consistent players throughout the season. Against Palma, the senior accounted for the team’s only points, converting on field goals from 32 and 34 yards away.

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