For a good 10 minutes after the postgame huddle, the San Benito High coaches and players took turns hugging one another and expressing words of appreciation for all the hard work they put in this season.
The Haybalers, who had just saw their season come to an end after a 37-21 loss to Menlo-Atherton in the opening round of the Central Coast Section Open Division I playoffs, displayed a bond that will seemingly last well beyond Friday night’s game.
“At the end of the year you’ve either won your last game or lost your last game, so it stings,” Balers coach Bryan Smith said. “But these players are a tight brotherhood, and they’ll be able to bounce back from this. We demand a lot out of our kids, so you try to reward them with a lot of things at the end of the year. I’m proud of our guys for playing hard tonight.”
The No. 4 seed Balers (6-5) were seemingly in control, taking a 21-14 lead into halftime. After a scoreless third quarter, No. 5 seed Menlo-Atherton (7-4) outscored San Benito 23-0 in the fourth quarter to win going away. The Bears did it by containing San Benito’s running game in the second half.
The Balers rushed for 178 yards in the first half, but were held to 107 in the final two quarters. They also gave up 526 yards—370 through the air—to Menlo-Atherton. Bears quarterback Miles Conrad shredded the San Benito defense for touchdown passes of 70, 32, 62 and 35 yards.
“Did we give up some big shots? Yeah, but we also had opportunities to score more points on offense and just didn’t get it done,” Smith said.
Pass defense has been the Achilles heel for the Balers all season, as they’ve given up big plays time and again. Conrad completed 14-of-21 passes, averaging a whopping 26.4 yards per completion. In the end, Menlo-Atherton proved to be the superior team.
However, Smith expressed pride in the team’s season, especially in the final three games. In particular, Smith said the team fought hard in a win over North Salinas and a close loss to Palma.
“These guys improved over the last three games of the season, so that tells me they never quit,” Smith said. “They have a lot of heart and wanted to play together as a whole team.”
Against Menlo-Atherton, the Balers received a sterling performance from Stevan Navarro, who in addition to rushing for 62 yards on nine carries made two spectacular plays on special teams. The first came near the end of the first half, when the junior came flying in on the Menlo-Atherton punt returner and in one fell swoop made a tackle, forced a fumble and recovered the ball at the M-A 27-yard line with 35 seconds left until halftime.
The highlight-reel play set up the Balers’ next score, a Slade Wilson to Gio Giannotta 3-yard TD pass that put San Benito up 21-14 at the half. Unfortunately for the Balers, they never found the end zone again. Navarro got dinged up early in the third quarter, and the Balers lost one of their premier playmakers in the process.
Giannotta made the most of his opportunities, running for a 63-yard TD for the team’s second score with 2:17 left in the second quarter. Tyler Ortiz and Elisha Reyes had interceptions for the Balers, who generated just 256 yards of total offense (212 rushing, 44 passing). Jonny Gonzalez led the way with 86 yards rushing on 17 carries, and also had two receptions for 43 yards. Giannotta had 68 yards on two carries.
“It hurts,” Smith said. “Especially for the seniors since it’s their last game. They’ve been working hard for four years. But we’ll take some time off, reflect for a bit and realize the players have a lot to be proud of.”