The moment Jose Morales came down with the interception, the Hollister Vikings 12-and-under Peewee team knew it could finally celebrate a hard-fought victory over Santa Cruz in the Peninsula Pop Warner League Division 2 playoff championship on Nov. 16 at Andrew Hill High in San Jose.
“I just thought no way did we just do this because they (Santa Cruz) are no joke,” said Vikings quarterback Cruz Raquet. “They’re a really good team, but I felt pretty good about our team this year.”
Indeed, with Raquet displaying a steady and reliable presence under center, Morales being a huge weapon at tight end and the three-headed running back attack of Bryan Chacon, Robert Holsten III and Steven Salcedo, Hollister played its best at the perfect moment—in the playoffs. The Vikings went just 2-5 in the regular-season before reeling off three consecutive playoff wins over Bayside, the Coastside Cougars and Santa Cruz. Vikings coach Robert Holsten II credited the team’s tough schedule—it played five teams from the upper Division I league during the regular-season—as proving vital to the team’s playoff success.
“Playing the top five D1 teams helped build our character,” he said. “It made our kids tougher because we were outsized the whole season.”
The 21-player roster includes Carmelo Arias, Julian Arroyo-Vega, Brandon Betancourt, Isaac Bribiescas, Jayden Camacho, Roberto Ceballos, Bryan Chacon, Andrew Gastelum, Yandel Gonzalez, Robert Holsten III, Ramiro Leon, Jose Morales, Rodney Nasaire Jr., Cruz Raquet, Erick Robles, Devin Ronquet, Steven Salcedo, Andrew Sanchez, Jacob Sandoval, Tyler Trites and Isayah Vingara.
The coaching staff included Robert Holsten II, Johnny Zapien, Mike Contreras, Andrew Gastelum, Ed Manriquez, Vince Gutierrez and Steven Salcedo. The Vikings also had two players from the Haybalers—Oscar Arias and Joshua Zapien—who provided support and were instrumental in the team excelling. Loren Holsten was an unsung hero helping out the team by performing a variety of tasks.
Holsten III said Peninsula Pop Warner decided to have no weight limit on kids competing in the league this year, making for a rather interesting dynamic.
“It was a challenge and kind of hard because we usually were going up against older kids. They’re super, super fast and it’s hard to catch up with them,” said Raquet, who also plays cornerback. “But if I get their legs, they can’t run.”
Speaking of running, Morales was doing a lot of that against Santa Cruz. In the first half, the Spring Grove seventh-grader caught a 60-yard touchdown pass from Holsten III on a halfback option pass. In the second half, the duo connected again. This time Holsten III threw a short pass, and Morales did the rest, weaving in and out of traffic en route to a 40-yard touchdown. Moments later, Morales came up with the game-clinching interception that sealed the outcome, another game-changing play that displayed Morales’ vast physical skills.
“I started following the ball to the receiver and right when I knew the pass wasn’t going as far as it was supposed to, I started to wait and then caught the ball,” said Morales, who plays middle linebacker on defense. “Right when I saw the QB running back, I knew he was going to pass. I knew I had to run back, and that helped me get in position for the interception. … Right when I got it, I thought, ‘We’re champions, we’re the best. Everyone started jumping up and down, and there was a lot of crying, too. Everyone was hugging each other and saying we were champions. Then you see everyone from the stands cheering, and you’re just so happy.”
Morales also nailed two field goals, showcasing his versatility. Chacon also was part of a huge play in the first half, as he scored a 60-yard touchdown two minutes into the game. Both Morales and Raquet credited the high school players as being instrumental in the team’s success.
“Our coaches helped out a lot and the high school coaches helped us out a lot,” Raquet said. “They helped us do a lot of drills, and that helped us to do better against Santa Cruz.”
Said Morales: “They really helped us a lot over the entire season. They help us a lot with our foot work, how to follow the ball, where we should grip the ball and how to hold the ball right. It was very helpful for us to watch them do drills.”
Morales and Raquet love football, even with the growing concern of concussions. Even though NFL Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Randy Moss were on the verge of retirement around the same time Morales was born, he still grew up idolizing them after watching their video clips.
“I saw them and wanted to be like them,” said Morales, who started playing football in the second grade and counted the Santa Cruz game as his favorite moment of the season. “There were some teammates who got some really good highlights with some good running and I love that because everyone at practice works their butt off.”
Raquet doesn’t have to look far for a role model, as his brother, Hunter, loves spending time with him. Hunter starred at quarterback for the Balers and played at Monterey Peninsula College for one year before transferring to Fresno State and then transferring back to MPC this season.
“I love football because I remember watching my brother play when I was 4,” Cruz said. “He is the one who inspired me to play football. We’d go out and throw the football around everyday, and he taught me to throw more accurate and farther. The best advice he gave me is to get my arm over my head and throw it more at an angle and doing three-step drops.”
It’s a given that most youth football players who grow up in Hollister have dreams to some day wear a Baler uniform. Raquet envisions a scenario where he follows in his brother’s footsteps.
“Oh yeah, no doubt that is a goal of mine,” said Raquet, a sixth grader at Rancho San Justo. “That is all I’m waiting for right now until high school.”
Despite being undersized relative to their competition, the Vikings relied on their balance to run the table in the playoffs.
“It was super hard at times because there were some really big kids, so we had to bond together,” Raquet said. “(It was hard to take a player down one on one, but) if three of us were around, we could take down any player.”
Hollister was able to utilize all of its talented playmakers and put them in a position to succeed.
“All three of our running backs have great vision,” Holsten III said. “They run really hard, and our tight end Jose is 6-feet tall and the player we passed it to the most. We play a lot of power football.”
On one of Morales’ TD catches, he leaped high to catch the ball—in between two defenders no less—before bringing it down and outrunning the Santa Cruz defense to the end zone. Defensive ends Gastelum and Ronquet always seemed to be in the opponent’s backfield at opportune times. Hollister developed resolve after going through a gauntlet of top-tier teams in the league season, setting itself up for a defining playoff surge.
After beating Bayside, Holsten III said the team still went into the Santa Cruz game as “huge underdogs.” But the Vikings had a lot of confidence built off wins over Bayside and Coastside, and it showed. In the title game, Gastelum Jr. had a fumble recovery that led to a score.
“The kids were definitely excited, fed off each other’s energy and were ready to work,” Holsten III said. “After the first two playoff wins, they came to practice the following week ready to work hard.”
Said assistant coach Gastelum: “The boys believed in each other and it showed during our games. They really became brothers on and off the field and I’m honored to have been one of the coaches. I’m glad they could share the championship together. They earned it.”