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November 29, 2021

Hollister Haybalers knock off Palma, keeping league title hopes alive

In a span of two weeks, the Hollister football team has gone from the valley to the mountain top. Two weeks ago, the Haybalers were in the pits after having been bested by Salinas, one of the best teams in Northern California.

On Friday night, the Balers found themselves on the other end of the emotional spectrum—as winners in a game with monumental Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division implications. With a 34-19 triumph over rival Palma, Hollister kept its league championship hopes alive in front of a packed house at Andy Hardin Stadium.

Hollister (6-1, 4-1) has now beaten Palma (5-2, 3-2) twice in the last six months, including a 34-30 win over the Chieftains on April 16 in the Covid spring season. Even though that victory was legitimate, Hollister’s latest win over Palma has extra meaning because it’s coming in the context of a full season including the playoffs which start in November.

Prior to April, Palma had beaten Hollister five consecutive times. In 2018 and 2019, in fact, the Chieftains stomped the Balers to the tune of 38-3 and 49-28, respectively. Just when it looked as if Palma was putting a stranglehold on this rivalry, Hollister snatched things right back. 

“I love beating Palma,” said Jayden Freidt, whose 30-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Hollister a 27-19 lead with 2 minutes 18 seconds left in the game. “Losing (to Salinas) was bittersweet. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, but it was good for us to get that experience because we don’t want to have that feeling again. And I don’t think we’re going to.”

On the interception, Freidt sat back and read Palma quarterback Luke Rossi all the way as the ball was thrown to the right flat. Freidt was there and once he caught it, he was already in full sprint mode to the end zone, leaving Palma in his wake. 

“I saw my receiver take off to the inside so I looked at (Rossi) and he’s coming at me,” Freidt said. “I saw the ball and my eyes got huge. I just dropped a third-down ball (on a previous series on offense) that I should’ve caught, and that just felt nice to make up for it. I didn’t want to let the team down.”

The win was vital because had the Balers lost, they would’ve been all but eliminated from the league title race. Barring some unforeseen events, Salinas isn’t going to end up with two losses in Gabilan Division action. Now, the Balers stay in contention for a league championship that has eluded them for 10 long years. 

Hollister has to win out and hopes Palma beats Salinas in the final week of the regular-season, which would then make the Balers and Cowboys co-champions. Hollister won’t be able to bask in its latest win long because it has a vaunted Aptos squad next. 

The Mariners have been destroying teams and suffered their only league loss to Salinas, which came right after an emotionally draining 47-42 win over Palma. Hollister is looking to avoid the same fate that befell Aptos, but it won’t be easy. Due to the quality of the top four teams in the Gabilan—Hollister, Salinas, Aptos and Palma—playing any of the combinations in back-to-back weeks and expecting consecutive victories means a team has to be on top of its game. 

Salinas and Palma have a more favorable league schedule in that regard compared to Hollister and Aptos. The Balers had Salinas, a bye week, Palma and now Aptos. As mentioned previously, Aptos had Palma and Salinas in back-to-back weeks. 

The winner of the Aptos-Hollister game keeps their title hopes alive, while the loser will be eliminated. Hollister knows it will have to refocus and get back to work immediately after an emotional win over Palma.

The Chieftains led 6-0 after the opening quarter before Hollister received a 7-yard touchdown run from Tyler Pacheco and a 2-yarder from Michael Reyes to go up 14-6 entering halftime. But Palma came out of the break and took control, scoring TDs on both of its third-quarter possessions to retake the lead, 19-14, with 3:49 left in the third. 

With the momentum going in Palma’s direction, the Balers needed to answer. They did just that with a drive from yesteryear, a nine-play, 81-yard drive—all runs split between Pacheco and Ashton Buzzetta. Pacheco capped the series with a 4-yard TD run—and while the two-point attempt failed—Hollister led 20-19 and would never relinquish the lead. 

“It was our consistency tonight (that won us the game),” Balers coach Bryan Smith said. “And Tyler Pacheco is a senior, he’a great leader and he told the guys we’re going to go down and score right now. So hats off to him and our O line—I think they dictated a lot of the game tonight.”

Once the Balers took the lead for good, their defense delivered, shutting out Palma in the fourth quarter on all five of the Chieftains’ possessions. Mateo Reyes had key back-to-back tackles on one series, and players like Asher Kearns, Billy Aviles, Alex Valencia and Derek Sandoval—just to name some—were all key in the defense standing tall. 

“The defense made plays when they needed to,” Smith said. “Guys were flying all over the field and having fun. Their QB is really good, it was kind of the battle of the QBs going into the game, and I think as a team we played the better game tonight in all three phases.”

Smith also mentioned the play of Vinny Vigilante, who has come on of late after a couple of injuries in the secondary, including one to standout Andrew Speech.

“We lost Speech going into the Salinas game and that was a big one,” Smith said. “Vinny Vigilante, a sophomore cornerback, stepped up and played real well tonight. He kept everything in front of him and made tackles.”

Pacheco had a 64-yard completion to Victor Villafuerte to set up Hollister’s second TD of the game. Villafuerte seemingly comes through with at least one catch for a huge gain that turns out to be a difference-maker in each game.  

Pacheco finished 7-of-14 passing for 95 yards and rushed for 108 yards on 17 carries, consistently dragging defenders for extra yardage. His ability to run and gain yards in every part of the field was pivotal in keeping drives going. Buzzetta had 58 yards on 14 carries and Reyes had two TD runs. 

A standout cornerback and safety, Freidt started receiving some snaps on the offensive side of the ball in the Alisal game last month and is a threat in the open field. He returned kickoffs against Palma and was on the receiving end of a huge hit in the second half. 

“It’s a dogfight,” he said. “My body is going through it (soreness) right now. On kick return I got hit a few times pretty hard. They let me hear it, but that is part of the game and I love it man. It’s all football in the end, and off the field we’re all cool, we all know each other.”

Smith and his coaching staff were jubilant post game, as they embraced each other with hugs that were more stronger than usual. Secondary coach Danny Brown even got Smith with a mini ice bath as he talked with reporters afterward. “We love this game, we love to prepare for this game, we love to play this game,” Smith said.

“We’ve had some great games with Palma and they’ve come down to the wire, and we told our kids all week we would have to play 48 minutes—if not more. And you have to prepare to play that way and have a mental toughness in this game. We could’ve folded shop after they scored two TDs (in the third quarter), but we didn’t. Our kids are resilient and they played extremely hard tonight. … There were some roller coaster emotions, but at the end of day you have to continue to play, and we did that.”

Tyler Pacheco and Ashton Buzzetta both played key roles in Hollister’s huge win over rival Palma. Photo by Robert Eliason.
The Hollister football team came up big against Palma in Friday night’s home game. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Balers coach Bryan Smith leads out the team for Friday night’s showdown with Palma. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]

Emanuel Lee
Sports Editor of the Gilroy Dispatch, Hollister Free Lance and Morgan Hill Times. PR of 3:13.40 at the 2019 CIM. Hebrews 12:1.

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