Football: Balers face familiar foe in CCS semifinals

Jonny Gonzalez established career-bests in both yards (128) and carries (20) in the Balers' 21-10 win over Salinas last week.

It’s been a couple of tough weeks for the San Benito High football team. Two weeks ago, the Haybalers lost a gut-wrenching 14-6 decision to rival Palma. Last week, they were good enough to beat Salinas in the opening round of the Central Coast Section Open Division I playoffs. However, they lacked execution and overall discipline, committing a season-high 17 penalties.

The No. 2 seed Balers (10-1) also had five starters who were either out entirely or played sparingly due to injury in the Salinas game. Through it all, however, the Balers are in a great position: With a win over No. 3 seed Milpitas (9-2) on Friday, they’ll advance to their fourth section final in the last five years.

The Balers figure to be up for this game considering what is at stake.

“The season is long, and you have to find ways to continue and motivate the players,” Balers coach Bryan Smith said.

If the atmosphere for the Palma game was a zoo, the one for Salinas was more like a morgue. Something just seemed a bit off in last Friday’s contest, starting with the fact that there was no school because of the Veterans Day holiday.

“I don’t think that day off helped us obviously,” Smith said. “There are a lot of things that go on when there is no school on Friday. Whether something has gone on the night before or changing the routine from not getting up at the same time and being active, there are so many different variables (to contend with). We don’t know how long they (the players) stayed out or what they did—I don’t think having Friday off of school helped us there.”

Neither did the injuries to the running back tandem of Hunter Nye and Carson Schmuckle, defensive tackles Richard Justo and David Cadena, and fullback Zack Alnas. Injuries or no injuries, Smith knows no one will be feeling sorry for his team entering Friday’s game against Milpitas.

“As positive as I want to stay and say I love our chances against Milpitas, we still have a lot to clean up,” Smith said.

Against Salinas, the Balers were flagged 17 times for 105 yards. That won’t work against Milpitas, which finished in a tie for second with Wilcox in the Santa Clara Valley De Anza Division to league champion Los Gatos. The Balers, of course, defeated both Wilcox and Los Gatos earlier this season.

But is San Benito—which prides itself on peaking as the season goes along—a better team now than it was in the first month of the season? The answer will come Friday night.

“On paper, we probably don’t match up very well with Milpitas,” Smith said. “But I love our chances no matter how big, physical and fast they are.”

Smith likes his team’s chances because it is able to get pressure on the quarterback. Defensive end Michael Camacho had 1 ½ sacks in last week’s playoff victory, making him the school’s all-time sacks leader. The secondary set the tone against Salinas, with free safety Robert Mendoza and cornerback Isaac Regalado returning interceptions 15 and 30 yards, respectively, to give the Balers a quick 14-0 lead.

Mendoza has received ample playing time this season, and for good reason.

“I love the kid,” Smith said. “He’s played extremely well. In practice, he’s a happy, go-lucky young man. But when he steps on the field, the light switch turns on and a different side of him comes out. He played extremely well in the secondary and did a great job.”

The Balers also have underrated weapons on special teams, with Diego Fisher’s long punts and kicker Nik Hernandez’s accuracy from 35 yards and in. Fisher had punts of 44, 45, 49 and 54 yards, allowing the Balers to win the field position battle against Salinas.

Smith loved the effort and performance from the trio of Jonny Gonzalez, Eddie Moran and Matt Ramon. Gonzalez and Moran established career-highs in both yards and carries, with Gonzalez going for 128 yards on 20 rushes and Moran 74 on 17.

“Eddie is all of 140, 145 pounds, but he gives us everything he has all the time,” Smith said. “In games and in practice as part of the scout team, Eddie does it all.”

Ramon played fullback and had an impact from start to finish.

“Matt played extremely well without the ball,” Smith said. “He did all the little things we asked of him.”

Such as finishing blocks and carrying out assignments on receiving a fake handoff, which is key to the San Benito offense in terms of deception and creating more space for the ball carrier. Smith also praised the performance of Eugene McBride, who more than held his own on the defensive line.

“Guys who normally don’t start came in and played extremely well,” Smith said. “Give credit to them, their families and our coaching staff for preparing the next guy to be able to execute plays on a moment’s notice.”

The Balers are hoping some of their starters will be healthy enough to play against Friday and be effective.

“We need to play a cleaner game against Milpitas to win, but I believe in these guys and trust in them,” Smith said.

Milpitas and San Benito are no strangers in the playoffs, as they will be meeting for the fourth time in the postseason since 2009. Milpitas owns a 2-1 advantage in that time, including a 37-23 win in the Division I championship game in 2013.

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