Despite graduating a dozen or so standout seniors off last year’s team, Hollister High football has the same on-field goals: to compete for league and section championships.
That’s possible every year for a school with a 3,400-plus student enrollment, a state of the art weight room, a storied tradition and a quality veteran coaching staff. For all those factors, the Haybalers should find themselves competing for a league championship, something they haven’t won since the 2011 season.
Bryan Smith enters his seventh season as the head coach and said what happened off the field in the off-season should prove decisive.
“Our biggest focus was re-establishing the weight room culture and what it means to show up and work everyday because that piece was hard (in the last couple of years due to Covid),” he said. “Getting guys to show up on a regular basis from January to June was a big challenge for us recently, and I think we were able to rebuild something we’ve had here for a long time.”
Smith said this year’s team doesn’t have a superstar, though Isaiah Molina comes close and could very well be defined as one by the end of the season. That’s because the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Molina is coming off a tremendous 2021 campaign that saw him make an enormous impact at receiver and cornerback.
“Isaiah Molina has been a great worker this offseason,” Smith said. “He’s much more vocal and has taken on a tremendous leadership role. We’re looking to get the ball to him as many ways as possible. He’ll see a little bit of time on defense, but we’re going to try to keep him primarily on offense because he’s one of our top guys and we need him there.”
The team did drills during the summer in which Smith said Molina “absolutely killed it,” chalking it up to Molina giving “110% every single time.” Running back Michael Reyes is another returning senior who came on strong last year and has prepared himself for an ultra-productive season.
“Michael Reyes is big and strong yet fairly elusive,” Smith said.
Andrew Delacruz and Brayden Watkins give the team added depth at running back. The offensive line looks to be stout with returning left tackle Michael Curto, who stands out with his performance and stature.
“Michael Curto is every bit of 6-5, 260, and we’re hoping he can become even more physical than what he shows at times,” Smith said.
Senior right guard Peter Campbell is one of the team’s most physical players. Beyond that, Smith said left guard Omar Yasin, center Jorge Montes, Matthew Villarreal and Angel Zendejaz are in the thick of competing for starting spots.
Junior Abel Galindo takes over for the graduated Tyler Pacheco at the all-important quarterback position. Smith likes what he has seen so far from last year’s backup.
“Abel Galindo is young, but he’s shown signs he can lead this team,” Smith said. “His throwing mechanics are really good, he’s got a strong arm and now we’re working on the mind piece of the game. The pre-snap, post snap, the quickness of the game.”
Hollister’s defensive line and linebacker corps should be a source of consistency and strength of the team. Smith said returning tackle Chance Brown (6-1, 220) has returned bigger, stronger and faster, and is “super coachable” which has translated into superior technique.
Another returner, Asher Kearns (6-2, 182), will play the opposite tackle position.
“Asher Kearns has put on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, is athletic and a high motor guy,” Smith said.
After playing a solid nose guard last year, Billy Aviles has switched to a standup defensive end/linebacker position along with Jake Varnes. Isaiah Camacho, who looks to be the frontrunner for nose guard, has a tremendous back story.
“Isaiah Camacho in the last two to three years has lost 80 pounds,” Smith said. “He made a life-changing decision to lose weight, work hard and buy into the weight room. He’s been a great addition to the team.”
Returning inside linebackers Alex Valencia (6-0, 190) and Maliki Harrison (5-10, 190) are as good a duo as they come at that position.
“Maliki and Alex are both looking to have great years,” Smith said. “They’re hungry and they have the ability to lead, and we need to see more out of them in that regard going into the season.”
Cornerback Vinny Vigilante is the lone returning starter in the secondary, though cornerbacks Daymien Valencia and Jonathan Mendez and safeties Donna Haertel and Isias Morin look to have breakout seasons.
Due to the ongoing referee shortage, Hollister’s first three weeks of the season will be unlike any other in program history. The Balers open the season at Oak Grove on Saturday, Aug. 27 at 7pm before a short turn-around for a contest at Wilcox on the ensuing Thursday, Sept. 1.
Their home opener follows a week later on a Thursday, Sept. 8, with kickoff at 7:30pm. Friday Night Lights? How about Thursday Night Lights? Smith said the coaching staff and players can only worry about what they can control, and one of those things is attitude and effort resulting in maturity.
“We talk about growing everyday, and showing more maturity and physicality than the day before,” Smith said.
Eighty-seven athletes tried out for the team this year, and the roster size has been cut down to 66. A year ago, 72 players tried out for the team. The numbers have been rising after a decade-long dip that began when studies of the effects of Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head—were made known, and that was followed by the coronavirus pandemic.
As time has passed, however, more teenage boys are flocking back to football in Hollister.
“It’s good to know young men out there that want to play football again,” Smith said. “Because of Covid, numbers were down. We’re very fortunate to have 87 guys try out.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]