Balers get it done with offensive line

Hollister right tackle Aidan Pung has been a key factor on the offensive line. Photo by Ed Wong.

The Hollister High football program has always been known to have a solid offensive line. This season is no different. In left tackle Diego Ramirez, left guard Jesus Toscano, center Blaze McShane, right tackle Aidan Pung and right guards Nate Sanchez and Joey Saldana, the Haybalers have a stout offensive line that continues to improve with each game.

Year in and year out, the Hollister offensive line opens up lanes and holes for the running backs to get to the second level. That often results in the Haybalers going on long drives that allow them to possess the ball for long periods of times as they rip off chunks of yardage with each carry.

The recipe every year remains the same: hard-working players who love football and an offensive line coach who teaches them well. That would be Chris Cameron, the longtime coach who save for one year as the junior varsity head coach in 2016 has been coaching the Hollister offensive linemen for nearly three decades.

“I haven’t had many coaches in my life, but I can’t image a better teaching coach than coach Cam,” Toscano said.

“(Playing offensive line) pretty much comes down to technique, and coach Cam is the best coach to teach us and motivate us to strive for perfect technique,” Ramirez said. “You don’t have to be the biggest or strongest guy, but as long as you know how to do the fundamentals, you can be successful. I think all of us have been doing good.”

Indeed, that is evident whenever the Balers are getting into the end zone frequently—as they did in putting up 47 points in a lopsided win over Seaside last week—and when the running backs hit the second level without resistance from the defense.

Ramirez played defense in his freshman year on the freshmen team, then made the switch to the offensive line on the junior varsity team as a sophomore.

“Coach Cam wanted me on offense, and he always gets what he wants,” Ramirez said.

For the longest time, Hollister’s linemen have been known to be on the smaller end of the spectrum compared to similarly successful high school programs. However, that never prevented them from being effective. But in recent years the Balers’ linemen have beefed up to the point where they look stout while coming off the bus.

Pung is 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Saldana is 5-10 and 280, Sanchez is 5-6 ½ and 235, Ramirez is 5-10 and 243, Toscano is 5-9 and 240, and McShane is the smallest of the bunch at 5-10 and 195 pounds.

With size, strong fundamentals, a willingness to pay the price, take in instruction and be flat-out nasty on the field, it’s no wonder the offensive line is a perennially strong unit. The offensive linemen are downright intense and take pride when it comes to doing their respective jobs. Each player has a different mindset or approach when they’re battling defensive linemen. Saldana takes an only the strong will survive attitude.

“I go out there and pretend I’m like a wild boar and go crazy,” said Saldana, who battled a neck issue all season and is hoping the team makes an extended playoff run so he can make a possible return this season. “The quarterback and my teammates are my blood (family), and I have to be a wild boar and protect the babies.”

Said Pung: “The mindset I have as coach Cam explains it is to take my guy and plant him somewhere else and find a new piece of real estate to plant him in.”

Ramirez focuses on what he has to do for every play.

“My mindset is about who is in front of me and what is about to happen,” he said. “I tell myself I have to be faster, stronger and make sure the defender doesn’t get to the spot before I do.”

Sanchez expressed a similar mindset as Saldana, noting how animals in a family protect each other.

“I know if I mess up I can get one of them hurt,” he said. “I think of myself as protecting a family member and know the guy across from me pretty much wants to hurt my family. So I get into this mindset that I can’t let anyone get past me. I’m pretty much playing for my brothers next to me.”

The offensive line builds chemistry by repeating drills literally hundreds of times, watching video together and building camaraderie off the field. Pung and Ramirez are probably the most experienced players of the bunch, having played organized football for 10 years.

“We’ve been executing our basic run schemes really well,” Ramirez said. “We’ve been together for a long time, so we know each other really well and each other’s skill sets. We apply those skills to the field, whether it’s basic man on man run blocking or sometimes in the back set area or pulling.”

Of course, being a linemen carries with it a physical and mental toll. Most of the linemen have had their fair share of challenges and adversity. Ramirez missed the games against Gilroy and Christopher but was expected to play against Seaside.

Toscano, who missed the team’s playoff run last year due to poor grades, made sure to start taking his classwork more seriously. And Toscano has done just that, as he said he has a current 3.0 GPA. Although tough at the time, Toscano said he knew he had to turn things around.

“It was something I had to experience in order to get better,” he said. “I wasn’t verygood at school—and I’m still not the greatest—but I have gotten better.”

And that’s all anyone can ask for, to constantly improve in any aspect of life. Toscano, who only started playing football as a freshman, missed most of his sophomore year on the junior varsity team in 2016 due to a concussion. Despite having only a couple of years of experience under his belt, Toscano has thrived. Toscano didn’t really care for football and only tried out for the team as a freshman because McShane asked him to try out.

Saldana has a similar story in that he didn’t have an affinity for football—or sports for that matter—growing up.

“When I was a kid, I dug really big holes in the backyard and found my dad’s chickens and collected eggs,” Saldana said. “I was really into trains and Tonka trucks. And I was skinny all way into the sixth grade before I found Jack in the Box. After that, I just got bigger.”

The offensive linemen have plenty of motivation to do well, including not wanting to get a tongue-lashing from Cameron, whose voice booms from the sidelines when a linemen isn’t playing up to standards.

“You know he’s doing it for your success, but at the moment it’s like, ‘Damn, I did something wrong,’” Toscano said.

Pung said Cameron hasn’t gotten on him too much over the years, meaning Pung either has a really thick skin, usually does his job or a combination of both.

“I haven’t messed up much because I’ve been with coach Cam for three years and he hasn’t really yelled at me for messing up too much,” Pung said.

The linemen know what’s expected of them, and it all starts with fundamentals. When the linemen are in their stance, they have to get off the ball with precision and quickness.

“The first step is the most crucial step,” Sanchez said. “And the second step is to make sure to drive our feet and get our hands inside the D linemen’s numbers.”

The Hollister offensive linemen are Ford tough, as they play through various ailments. Saldana has been playing through some major pain for most of the season, as he said he suffered a pinched nerve or sprained muscle in his neck in the first game of the season after getting his head turned while at the bottom of the pile.

“I kept playing with it, which probably wasn’t a good idea,” he said. “It finally got to a point where I needed to get it checked out because it was causing headaches.”’

Every Hollister player who completes a season deserves credit for making a commitment and putting in long hours to better themselves and the team. For a lot of boys growing up in Hollister and interested in football, their goal is to one day wear a Hollister uniform.

“I’m pretty much fulfilling my dream of being on the varsity and it’s great,” Sanchez said.

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