Balers to play at Levi’s; run game on the mark

The Hollister defense converges on the Santa Teresa QB in last Friday's game. Photo by Nick Lovejoy.

Chris Soto wouldn’t go down. The junior running back had touchdown runs of 23 and 17 yards in Hollister’s 30-7 season-opening win over Santa Teresa last Friday, and on both occasions he displayed an indomitable will that will serve him well on and off the field now and in the future.

Soto’s 23-yard TD run with 9 minutes, 42 seconds remaining was a thing of beauty. After clearing the line of scrimmage, Soto reached the right sideline before he absorbed a couple of hits from Santa Teresa defenders. Soto’s knees nearly touched the turf, but he used his hand to keep himself upright before shedding off another would-be tackle en route to the end zone.

“Chris Soto did a great job of running the football,” Haybalers coach Bryan Smith said. “He wasn’t going down with one other defender or two other defenders or three other defenders on him. That was a great run on the sideline where he puts his hand down—we call that a third leg drill where he puts his hand down and keeps on going. He was very determined to score, and we like to see that from all of our running backs.”

Hollister (1-0) christened its sparkling new stadium with a blowout win in front of an overflow crowd on the home side bleachers, which can seat approximately 3,000 people. Hollister goes from playing in a first-class high school stadium to a world-class venue in Levi’s Stadium on Friday at 5 p.m. against Wilcox High. Wilcox usually plays one game at Levi’s Stadium every other year, and it just so happened that its game at Levi’s fell in Week 2 against Hollister.

“(Wilcox) coach Paul Rosa calls me and says, ‘Hey, the Niners have reached out to them, and they’d like to play this game on this date against you guys,'” Smith said. “And I said, ‘Well, OK, we’d love to play that game because what an experience it’ll be for these guys and for us as a coaching staff. I mentioned it to our guys (one day in practice) and said, ‘Hey, has anyone ever dreamed of playing in an NFL stadium?’ They were like, ‘Uh, what are you talking about coach?’ Then I told them they were going to have that opportunity on Sept. 6 against the defending state champions the Wilcox Chargers. They all erupted, and it was great. Now we have to prepare to play good football that day and also enjoy the experience of having that opportunity.”

Soto grew up rooting for the Niners and players like Frank Gore and Patrick Willis, so his experience—like many of his teammates—will seem surreal.

“This is like a dream coming true that I never thought would ever happen,” Soto said. “Especially being a 49er fan and getting to step onto that field where legends have played before.”

Against Santa Teresa, the Balers did what they do best: run the ball with strong line play and utilizing deception to keep the defense off-balance. The latter is not to be taken lightly, as deception plays a vital role in the Hollister offense. Hollister carried out its fakes superbly, as several times players without the ball would be going one away, taking defenders with them. Meanwhile, the actual Hollister ball carrier was up the field gaining positive yardage.

“That (improving deception) was a huge emphasis in the offseason,” Smith said. “We took a concept from a team back east on layered handoffs, and we’ve been working it and been working it hard. We focus on trying to layer the football, which is hiding the football and carrying out fakes beyond 20 yards. We know one guy has the ball, but the defense should be looking at it as if who has the ball because there is a possibility of three to four guys having the ball at the same time. So you’re carrying the football without carrying the football. We call it the ghost ball, and we spent a lot of time on it in the offseason.”

Soto is entering his second season as a running back, having played defense in his freshman year. When Balers junior varsity coach Brian DeCarli converted him to running back for the 2018 season, Soto was obviously ecstatic. Soto credited the offensive line for playing well, as senior left guard Isaac Gonzalez and sophomore center A.J. Flores helped pave the way for Hollister to amass 298 yards rushing.

Alejandro Cosio-Arellano shined with a game-high 86 yards rushing, while Juan De Leon rushed for 74 yards and Soto 51. Defensively, the Balers were stout, as they limited Santa Teresa to just 201 yards of total offense. However, Santa Teresa puffed up those numbers on a long TD late in the game with the outcome already decided.

Hollister took advantage of some sloppy Santa Teresa ball-handling early in the second quarter. The Balers had just scored to make it 8-0 when Santa Teresa fumbled the ball on the ensuing kickoff. However, the Balers gave it right back two plays later as the ball squirted away on a center-QB exchange. Later in the quarter, Santa Teresa muffed a punt, handing the Balers the ball at the Santa Teresa 33-yard line.

Hollister made Santa Teresa pay, as Eric Green rushed for 11 yards and De Leon produced a terrific run in which he dragged multiple defenders for a 14-yard gain. Two plays later, De Leon scored on a 5-yard TD run. Hollister ran for two points to make it 16-0 with 2:51 left in the first half.

All in all, Hollister had a successful season-opener, as the players experienced plenty of excitement playing in front of a huge home crowd.

“It was crazy,” Soto said. “I got into the end zone, looked up and saw everyone roaring. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is actually happening right now.’ It was just crazy, an adrenaline rush and everything. … My mentality when I got hit was to not go down. I just thought to myself, ‘I can’t go down.’ I had to score and reach the end zone, and we got the win.”

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