There was a slight twinkle in Bryan Smith’s eyes as he talked about the upcoming season last week, even with the projected loss of starting quarterback Slade Wilson for the first game of the season. That tells you all you need to know about San Benito High’s prospects this season. With a senior-heavy team, the Haybalers are seemingly primed for a championship run in the ultra-competitive Pacific Coast Gabilan League.
“I’d like to think we have a shot at contending,” said Bryan Smith, who is entering his third season as the head coach. “As long as we stay healthy, I’d like to think we’ll be very competitive this year.”
Translation: Smith likes his chances with this group, even in a league stacked with stalwarts like defending champion Salinas, Palma and Aptos. That’s because the Balers—who went 6-5 overall and 4-3 in league last season—return a punishing offensive line, experienced secondary, talented linebacker corps and running backs who are capable of busting off some big gains at any moment.
In center Blaze McShane, right tackle Aidan Pung, left tackle Diego Ramirez and guards Jesus Toscano, Nathan Sanchez and Joey Saldana, the team’s top linemen either started or played significant snaps last season.
The Balers are no less talented with the running back core. Stevan Navarro returns after a breakout 2017 season, showcasing dynamic running skills combined with the ability to punish would-be tacklers.
“Steven Navarro worked really hard in the off-season academically, in the weight room and growing as a leader,” Smith said. “He has the capability to do some big things. He hits the hole extremely hard, is very well conditioned and is a slasher. He’s not an easy guy to take down by any means, and he’s proven in our fall and summer camps that we’re looking for some big things from him in terms of number of touches and total yardage.”
Smith is also excited to have fullback Eric Green returning, as he suffered a concussion midway through last season. At a solid 235 pounds, Green will provide solid blocking with the ability to break off a big gain on occasion and keep the chains moving.
“Eric Green is a load and the type of fullback we want in our offense,” Smith said.
Matt delatorre is slotted to start opposite Navarro, and Adam Rostran and Juan De Leon are up-and-coming talents at the running back position.
“They’ll have a great opportunity to get touches as well,” Smith said.
San Benito has some nice depth at tight end, with 6-foot-2, 185-pound Dillon Engler looking for a breakout season.
“Dylan has got the build to go and get some passes,” Smith said. “He’s got all the intangibles and is a smart kid, runs fast and works hard. But we need him and all of the tight ends to do the things for us to be successful within the run game so we can exploit our play-action game.”
Owen Branon, Trevor Cordova and Sam Arreola also have potential at tight end, which is an ultra-important position within the Balers offense. Wilson returns at quarterback, and his teammates and coaches can’t wait to get him on the field as he recovers from injury.
“Slade spent a lot of time in the weight room improving and becoming a great leader,” Smith said. “When he gets healthy, he will be able to provide us with a huge spark and a sense of leadership this team is wanting and needing and ready for. I told him I don’t need him for games 1 and 2; I need you for games 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 (since a higher league finish guarantees an automatic berth into the CCS playoffs).”
Should Wilson miss a game or two, the Balers have senior Nate Greene—who played receiver last year—and sophomore Michael McShane serving as the backup.
“We’ll need everyone to rally around these guys,” Smith said.
In cornerbacks Anthony Delgado and Kristian Espinoza and safeties Robert Mendoza and Isaias Rivera, the San Benito secondary is one of the most experienced units on the team. Delgado is moving from outside linebacker to corner, a position that he might excel in considering his speed and agility.
Nose guard Ivan Benitez and Jon Reyes return to anchor the defensive line, and Smith said both players are known for their relentless effort while striving to be excellent. Tod Thatcher returns as defensive coordinator, and one can expect a more fundamentally sound unit this season.
“We spent a lot of time (in the off-season) defensively in how to line up correctly, sprint to the ball, how to tackle, and doing the basics of football extremely well,” Smith said.
The linebacker corps have a chance to be downright special. In Albert Rodriguez, Owen Branon and Marcus Aranda, the Balers have three players who are physical and looking to maximize their talent.
“Albert is a great downhill football player and loves contact,” Smith said.
In addition to wanting to lead the team to league and CCS titles, Rodriguez has individual goals to lead the team in tackles and earn league Defensive Player of the Year honors. Rodriguez spent the off-season doing what all impact players do: improving. He watched a lot of video from last season, noting all of his mistakes and things he could’ve done better.
“I think I’ve gotten way better compared to last year,” he said. “Over the summer I went over all the mistakes to try to fix them as much as possible. Last year I kind of crept up too many steps forward (to the line of scrimmage), so I need to work on my first read and react right away instead of creeping forward. I’d go too forward and be knocked out of the play.”
During the summer break, Rodriguez spent two hours a day watching video, often writing notes and every single mistake so he could review them. in other words, Rodriguez is spending more time watching video than playing Fortnite, the immensely popular video games that is all the rage among kids and teenagers.
“Whenever I have spare time or nothing to do, I’m on Hudl watching film on my laptop or phone, depending on where I am,” Rodriguez said. “I want to take my game to a higher level.”
Due to the ongoing construction of the school’s new home stadium, San Benito will play all of its “home” games at Rabobank Stadium in Salinas this season. They also have two away games against Alvarez and Salinas, meaning they’ll be spending the majority of their game days in Salinas, which isn’t exactly a stone’s throw away from Hollister. However, Smith expressed no worries about the team being a full-time road team in 2018.
“These guys don’t talk about it, which I love,” he said. “There is no other group I would like to do this with than this group and this senior class.”
“If I had to have a class do it, this senior class and this team is the one to do it,” he said. “There is no other group I would like to do this with than this team.”