New look Balers impress in defeat

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Balers quarterback Tyler Pacheco scrambles for yardage in the team's season-opener against St. Francis-Mountain View on Saturday night. Photo by Robert Eliason.

When the Hollister offense came out in a multiple-personnel, spread offensive set, St. Francis must have felt like it was in the twilight zone. After all, the Haybalers traditionally have run power offensive sets, often featuring three tailbacks in the backfield with the quarterback. It was run first, pass later, and depending on the season, some years were more successful than others.

A 24-19 loss to the host Lancers on March 20 in the season-opener for both teams did little to dampen the Balers afterward, as they purported themselves well and knew they had stood toe-to-toe with a perennial Central Coast Section power. Frankly, players from both sides were just happy to take the field. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, both teams were playing for the first time in 17 months. 

“It felt good to be back out there,” Balers senior Chris Soto said. “The crowd was roaring, and you felt the electricity in here.”

Even when it looked like the 2020 season would be wiped away, Hollister kept on working in perhaps the longest off-season in the history of the program. The Balers’ noted 5am conditioning sessions are meant to steel the players’ resolve, whittle out athletes who are not fully committed to the program and teach discipline. Taking the field made all the grueling workouts and sacrifices worth it, Soto said. 

There was no bickering on the sideline and the players maintained a positive attitude to the final whistle, knowing they were a couple of plays away from winning the game. The difference in the outcome came on special teams, when the host Lancers blocked a field goal attempt and ran it back 73 yards for a touchdown to extend their lead to 24-12 on the final play of the third quarter. 

The Balers answered on the ensuing possession, as Tyler Pacheco hit Soto down the left seam for a 47-yard TD to account for the final score with 8 minutes, 16 seconds remaining. Hollister had one final chance to take the lead as it got the ball back on its 17-yard line with 3:08 left. However, its drive stalled on a fourth-and-23 from the Lancers’ 43-yard line, with Pacheco forced to scramble and being stopped well short of the first-down marker. 

The drive was marred by three false-start penalties that all but put the kibosh on Hollister’s attempt to find the end zone. No matter. After one game, albeit a loss, the Balers felt optimistic as they look toward their next game, an April 3 matchup at Bellarmine. 

“We’ll get better,” Hollister coach Bryan Smith said. “From the very first day of padded practice to today, we’re much better already. 

Especially in the passing game. Quick: name the last time the Balers finished with more yards passing than rushing? It doesn’t happen often, but it did against St. Francis. Hollister produced 251 of its 351 yards of total offense through the air, a remarkable and stunning feat when one considers the history of Hollister football. The transformation of the offense started last spring, when Smith and some members of his coaching staff met with Clovis High coach Rich Hammond, a Baler alumnus. 

“His offense was something we were attracted to in terms of multiple personnel and us having some guys who could fit into that mold,” Smith said. 

Count Soto as the perfect example. Last season, Soto was a running back in a three back offense. In the team’s new offensive formation, he’s split out wide, where he’s able to use his speed and athleticism and find favorable matchups, either in 1-on-1 or zone coverage. In fact, St. Francis was oftentimes playing a Cover 3 defense, and Soto was able to find openings in the seams. 

In addition to his 47-yard TD reception, Soto burned the Lancers for a 85-yard TD catch-and-run in the second quarter. Michael McShane hit Soto in stride down the right seam before Soto made cut across the grain and outran the St. Francis secondary to the end zone. In one sequence, Hollister showed an ability it hasn’t had in years: an offense that could quickly strike for a score through the air. 

“It’s been exciting. We’re having fun with it and the kids are having fun with it,” Smith said. “(During the off-season) we looked at the guys we had and said, ‘What are we doing and how could we get the most out of our athleticism?’ We have a long way to go, but we showed some positive signs tonight.”

Said Soto: “I love the new offense; I’m not getting pounded on every play. Nobody expected us to do this. They (St. Francis) were confused a little bit, expecting that smash mouth offense running the ball every play. We were getting all excited even in practice running it.”

In this day of social media, the team’s biggest challenge was keeping the offense’s metamorphosis under wraps. Fortunately for the Balers, St. Francis had nothing in the way of film to know Hollister was going to line up in multiple-personnel, spread offensive sets for the entire game, let alone a couple of plays. 

“We were keeping it low key,” Soto said. “Nobody was allowed to screen record, no posting to social media, we were keeping this to ourselves.”

Soto finished with five receptions for a career-high 168 yards, while the potent quarterback combination of McShane and Pacheco combined to complete 13-of-20 passes for 251 yards with no interceptions. Anthony Mercurio had a breakout game with five receptions for 61 yards, and Primo Reyes gained 96 yards on a game-high 16 carries. Reyes had a 65-yard TD run on the team’s second play from scrimmage, showing the Balers still are plenty capable to do damage via the run game. 

Mack Stiers, Khader Yasin and Miguel Sahagun III have led the offensive line, while Ricky Navarro, Joe Dickerson and Grant Dietz are expected to have similar big impacts defensively. Hollister’s defense came up with a huge stop that forced a turnover on downs when St. Francis had a fourth-and-1 from the Hollister 5-yard line late in the second quarter. 

When state health officials announced three weeks ago that high-contact outdoor sports like football had the green-light to play, Smith felt particularly happy for all the seniors on the team, knowing this was their final season. For a player like Soto, the long delay to the 2020 season actually helped crystallize his decision to play again. 

After suffering a concussion against Salinas High last season—the latest of multiple ones he’s suffered since his career began—Soto said he probably wouldn’t be playing had the season started on time in late August. 

“The doctor said it was your call,” Soto said. “The delay meant I had extra time to think about it. Then one day Michael (McShane) is all excited and telling me I have to play right after he got out of a Zoom meeting. I thought, ‘Shoot, I’ve got to get back out there, I’ve got this.’”

Balers senior Primo Reyes breaks loose for a big gain during a 24-19 loss to St. Francis-Mountain View on Saturday. Photo by Robert Eliason.