Hollister High senior Elijah Huerta finds his way into end zone for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter during their PCAL Gabilan Division game against Aptos High on Oct. 27. (Chris Mora/special to the Free Lance)

In a game where both offenses were unstoppable, it was Hollister High’s defense that made two crucial plays that helped deliver the Balers a thrilling 29-26 win over visiting Aptos on Oct. 27. 

The winning score came with just seven seconds left on Senior Night.

“I’m excited for our guys,” Hollister coach Bryan Smith said. “We’ve had three league games decided by a total of seven points. I’m proud of our guys. We are trusting in the process. What we could not do is lose and now we have a chance to get in the playoffs.”

With the win, Hollister improved to 3-5 overall, and 2-3 in the competitive Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan Division. 

Aptos’ playoff hopes took a major blow with the loss, as they slipped to 2-7 overall and 1-4 in PCAL action.

“We came out and did our thing,” Hollister quarterback Abel Galindo said. “[Aptos’] offense is really good. Our defense picked us up. We really needed this. Now we need to focus on Salinas.”

Galindo completed 7-of-11 pass attempts for 133 yards and one touchdown, while senior running back Brayden Watkins led Hollister with 11 carries for 98 yards and one TD. Elijah Huerta ran for 23 yards and two touchdowns on six carries. 

Aptos was led by Jordan Torres with 98 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries and Matt Hood with 86 yards and two scores on 17 carries.

Both offenses were ground-based and effective. But it was Hollister’s defensive unit that came through in the clutch to set the Balers up for a last-second victory, which Galindo and the offense converted. 

The first big play came in the third quarter. Trailing 19-7, Hollister drove to the red zone but a turnover killed the drive. 

The Mariners looked to run clock and possibly put the game out of reach with a score. But one play later, the Baler defense got the ball back via a fumble.

“The fumble recovery was huge,” safety Daymen Valencia said. “Our linebacker met him in the hole and stripped the ball.”

Harold Lusk ran for eight yards and Watkins roared up the middle for six for the score, putting Hollister back to within reach at 19-14. 

Both teams traded touchdowns and with five minutes left in the game, Aptos took the ball and once again looked to run out the clock. 

After the Mariners ran for a first down, Smith used a pair of timeouts on the team’s last opportunity for a much-needed stop. On third and four, the defense came through.

“We had to stop them,” Valencia said. “It was me and No. 10 (Carmelo Arias) that got (Torres) on the corner. That was huge.”

A gain of just one yard produced a fourth down situation for Aptos, which was forced to punt the ball. 

Hollister was on their own 21-yard line with 2:42 to play, facing a 26-21 deficit. The offense needed to come through, and they did in a most exciting way.

Galindo marched the Balers up the field, with two key Watkins runs netting 26 yards. The ball was on the Mariners 42-yard line with just over one minute remaining when the Balers made the offensive play of the night.

“I rolled to the right,” Galindo said. “Their linebacker came up on me. That opened up my view downfield. I saw Robert (Holsten).”

A 33-yard pass completion moved the ball down to Aptos’ 9-yard line, bringing an enormous explosion of cheers from the Hollister fans. Andy Hardin Stadium was loud and rocking.

“It was a broken play,” Smith said. “The play I called did not come to fruition. Holsten broke his route off and the slant came to the other side. We implemented the offense well and it paid off tonight.”

Smith continued to adeptly manage time carefully, not wanting to allow Aptos time to reply if the Balers scored. 

Watkins ran for seven yards and the clock ticked down below 30 seconds. Huerta capped it off with the go-ahead touchdown with seven seconds remaining in the game.

“It felt amazing,” Huerta said. “It was crazy, especially on Senior Night. The defense came through for us. On the touchdown, I followed my left guard Caden Baik. All my linemen are great. (Arden) Bracamonte pulled to block somebody. (Chineme) Mgbechi blocked somebody. It was great to hear all the fans when we scored.”

After a squib kick, Aptos had one play left. A trick double pass play was defended and the game was over. The Hollister bench erupted onto the field and cheerleaders and others joined the fray. A spectacular victory for the Balers.

“We needed that win big time,” Watkins said. “We’ve been fighting hard all year. Holsten came through very clutch. And Elijah. It was a great team effort, especially by our linemen.”

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