Balers junior Mateo Reyes looks for daylight in Friday night's game against Palma. Photo by Ed Wong.

For the first time since 2014, the Hollister football team has beaten Palma. The Haybalers made it so with a riveting 34-30 win on Friday night. 

“It’s gratifying,” said defensive back Jayden Freidt, who had two game-changing interceptions. “None of the guys on our team have ever beaten Palma. And for us to be out there doing it (together) was amazing.”

This may not have been the season that any high school coach or player expected, but for the Balers, this was absolutely the game they wanted, ending their truncated season in the best way possible.

In a long off-season beset by on-again, off-again COVID restrictions, the Balers (2-2) held over 100 practices and conditioning sessions just to play a total of four games. The first two were road games, losing first to St. Francis-Mountain View 24-19 and then to Bellarmine, 17-14.

They overwhelmed King City 45-20 last week in their home opener, but Palma promised to be a greater challenge, entering the contest at 2-1 and with a five-game winning streak against the Balers. Hollister received a rare touchdown from its special-teams unit as Chris Soto returned the opening kickoff 87 yards for a quick 7-0 lead. 

Soto also had a hand in the team’s second score, as he caught a TD pass from Michael McShane to put the Balers up 14-7 with 3 minutes, 48 seconds left in the first quarter.  On the drive, McShane connected with Izaiha Molina twice for a big gain. Palma scored the next 10 points and took a 17-14 lead into halftime only to see McShane hook up with Justin Cortez for a TD with 9:14 left in the third quarter, giving the Balers a 21-17 lead.

Palma answered with a TD of its own to retake the lead, 24-21. It was then when Freidt came up with one of the defining plays of the game, intercepting a Palma pass in the end zone to prevent the Chieftains from extending their lead. Moments later, Tyler Pacheco hit Anthony Mercurio for an electrifying 80-yard TD to put Hollister back ahead, 27-24, with 8:46 remaining. 

Primo Reyes then added insurance with a TD run to up the advantage to 10 points with 4:45 to go. 

“We had great pass blocking in this game,” Reyes said, “and we handled run blocking really well, too. For me, the first play of the game where the special teams did such a great job is a favorite moment, but I’m proud that my touchdown (extended) the lead.”

But in a game whose theme could’ve been titled, “Anything you do I can do better,” Palma returned the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a TD to cut its deficit to 34-30 with 4:25 left. Things got really interesting on the ensuing series when Palma forced a fumble which set up a first-and-10 from the Hollister 24-yard line. 

Shades of the St. Francis and Bellarmine games were seeping in, as the Balers fell a couple of plays short in losing both contests. Was this going to be another repeat? Not if Freidt had anything to say about it, as he came up with another critical interception, this time with 1:30 left to ice the outcome. 

“There was nothing easy about this game,” said Balers coach Bryan Smith, “which is great because there has been nothing easy about the entire process. When you struggle and come out on top, you feel like you can accomplish anything. Our kids can go out and accomplish anything they want in life.”

Smith was impressed with how well the team worked together after the difficulties of getting the season together.

“We had four or five turnovers, but our defense held their ground, play after play,” Smith said. “We had a huge play from Anthony Mercurio and Primo Reyes, running hard with the football. We leaned on the guys like Primo and others who really got us here: Michael McShane, Gabriel Camacho, Ricky Navarro, Mack Stiers, all the seniors. Donnie Guttirez and Grant Dietz. They don’t get talked about much but they were excellent. And Jayden Freidt — I told Jayden that he was going to have a huge game and he comes up with two huge interceptions.”

At the end of the game, the team went wild and the parents flocked to the field. Players arranged themselves in groups for photos to remember each other by and proud parents had to have one taken with their sons for their Facebook pages. But in the end, Smith put things into perspective.

“You’ll have better feelings,” he said, addressing his team. “You’ll have children, you’re going to get married, and those things matter in life. But right now, this is the best feeling in the world and you should enjoy it.”

Sophomore receiver Izaiha Molina gains yardage in the Balers’ 34-30 win over rival Palma in the season-finale. Photo by Ed Wong.
Chris Soto had another huge game, returning the opening kickoff for a TD to spark the Balers’ nail-biting victory. Photo by Ed Wong.
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