A football team is only as good as the player with the ball in their hands.
For No. 5 seed Hollister High, that athlete was senior Isaiha Molina, who would lead the Haybalers to an impressive 42-28 victory over top-seed Soquel High on Nov. 18 in the Central Coast Section Division III playoff semifinals.
Hollister (7-5) will play No. 3 seed Menlo School (7-5) in the championship game on Nov. 26 at Rabobank Stadium in Salinas. This is the Balers’ first CCS title game appearance since 2014, when they beat Salinas High 14-7 for the Division I championship.
And Molina is a big reason why. With the injury of starting junior quarterback Abel Galindo, Molina spent many offensive drives taking snaps directly from junior center Angel Zendejaz. This would enable him to immediately begin his runs without having to receive a hand-off, a strategy that would prove debilitating for Soquel’s defense.
“He played the way he’s capable of playing,” Hollister coach Bryan Smith said. “Isaiha spent more time than any player on our team this week in preparation for this game.”
This preparation would show itself during Molina’s fourth run of the game, where he outpaced the Knights for a 67-yard touchdown. On the very next drive, he would score another rushing touchdown, this time a 22-yarder to put the Balers up 14-0.
“Some people went down, got hurt, and others had to step up, and I became one of them,” Molina said. “I just had to jump back there in [at] QB and trust my linemen. I followed their blocks and they made the holes and I just made some plays.”
Molina would go on to score similar 68-yard and 25-yard TD runs in the third and fourth quarters, respectively, finishing with a game-high 217 yards rushing.
Hollister’s offensive line has been one of the team’s greatest unsung heroes throughout the playoffs. After a disappointing showing against Aptos heading into the playoffs, where Galindo would be pressured into completing 8 of his 18 pass attempts, Hollister’s line solidified.
In their first playoff game, the offensive line would allow Burlingame just three plays that went for negative yardage while keeping the quarterback untouched throughout.
“I feel like the bond [between the linemen] has gotten stronger these past few games,” senior offensive lineman Jorge Montes said. “We’ve been helping each other.”
This linemen’s kinship would prove vital when junior Caden Baik replaced Montes after he went down with a leg injury in the third quarter.
“I knew he was going to do a good job,” Montes said. “This whole week…we’ve been reassuring each other with things.”
Against Soquel, Hollister’s line was just as durable, conceding no sacks and allowing only three negative yardage plays: the first a 1-yard rushing loss, and the other two quarterback kneels to run down the clock and seal the win.
The Balers’ offensive line was so effective that Molina even had enough time to lob a 19-yard pass to sophomore receiver Savion Loza to open up the fourth quarter scoring at 34-21. Hollister would struggle with penalties on defense, playing a physical game that would result in three pass-interference penalties for a total loss of 45 yards.
“Our defensive secondary played good football and they’re throwing flags over there all from their sideline,” Smith said.
Despite these setbacks, Hollister remained potent throughout, cutting down Soquel’s completion rate to 47.5% on 40 throws. Seniors Alexander Solorio and Asher Kearns would share a sack during the Knights’ opening drive, while fellow senior Gabriel Sanchez corralled Soquel quarterback Cole Johnson in for a loss of seven yards in the second quarter.
“We have the best coaching staff in CCS. We have the best defensive coordinators. We have everything we need, and now we just got to put it together,” senior linebacker Alex Valencia said.
Smith would comment on the Balers’ playoff prowess: “We have practiced better the last two weeks than we have practiced all year. Just the intensity, the focus, the commitment to each other.”
This year’s title game is a rematch from last year’s Division II semifinals, when Menlo beat Hollister in a shootout, 45-35. Thus, this game has much more on the line than shiny hardware.
“We’re getting our get back,” Molina said. “We’re for sure hungry, and we’re gonna go in there fighting and they better be ready because we’re coming.”