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December 3, 2023

With superior athleticism, Balers could be headed for a special season

Hollister football coach Bryan Smith doesn’t remember the last time a wave of talented athletes have come through the program like it has the last couple of years. From Jayden Freidt to Tyler Pacheco to Derek Sandoval and others, the Haybalers have athleticism at the skill positions which could be a harbinger for a great season.

In the Covid season that was completed in April, Hollister finished 2-2 and employed a new spread formation offense to take advantage of their added athleticism. It opens the season at Santa Teresa on Aug. 27. 

“By switching to that offense, we focused more on our personnel,” Smith said. “What can our personnel do best? We truly never believed in that prior to going to that kind of concept. It was always a system based oriented offense so we were running a system rather than running plays better suited to our personnel. We have some athletic young men and are trying to utilize them in space. 

“Are we still a spread team? Absolutely. Are we still trying to be an effective run team? Absolutely. But we’re utilizing our speed, agility and quickness on the perimeter and really fitting the type of kids we’re getting into our program now. You see a majority of college teams doing that, and we’re kind of piggybacking off of that and being more dynamic on offense.”

Quarterback Pacheco receives the snaps from center A.J. Flores, who has taken on a tremendous leadership role on the offensive line, Smith said. Flores may also see some time at defensive tackle, though the coaching staff prefer their linemen to play one way to maximize a player’s effectiveness. 

“A.J. had a great fall camp and has done a tremendous job communicating and being vocal with our calls and becoming a leader amongst our team,” Smith said. 

Kyle Edwards, Michael Curto and the Yasin brothers—Karim and Khader—fill out the offensive line. They’ll be tasked with the responsibility to give strong pass protection and open up holes for Ashton Buzzetta, who has emerged as the frontrunner among a talented and tough stable of running backs. 

“Ashton is our starter and he’s definitely pulled away from the pack this fall,” Smith said. “It wasn’t easy because believe it or not we’re still implementing new schemes within the run game even different from the four games we did last year. Ashton has done a really good job of learning it.”

Izaiha Molina and Victor Villafuerte have emerged as playmaking receivers. Molina had two huge receptions in the team’s win over Palma last season and followed that up with a strong summer. He could see time at cornerback as well because of his athleticism and nose for the ball. 

Villafuerte has stood out as well, and not just because he’s 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds. Villafuerte’s ability to get open and also play tight end and free safety means he’ll literally be all over the field making plays. Defensively, the Balers have four impact players at the two critical inside linebacker spots. 

Smith said David Solis and A.J. Valencia would be the starters if there was a game today; however, Maliki Harrison and Josh Martinez are “very close” and all four are projected to see ample playing time. 

“It’s a good, solid group,” Smith said. “Coach (Tod) Thatcher puts a lot on their plate as they have to make some checks when the formation comes out. So a lot of responsibility is put on those inside linebackers in terms of recognizing formations and checking on defense which allows us to be the most successful.”

Derek Sandoval is locked in at strong safety, is in his third season as a starter on the varsity squad and brings toughness and tenacity. Free safety Mateo Reyes also returns and should have another huge year after recording 17 tackles against St. Francis last season. 

Andrew Speech and Freidt round out a secondary that should make a number of game-changing plays throughout the season. 

“They’re a sound group and we’ve been able to do more with our coverages in the last 10 practices than we have ever done in years past,” Smith said. “Mateo is a super savvy football player, and so is Speech at 6-2, 180. Jayden was pulled up to the varsity as a sophomore and is a pretty special young man. Derek is probably the most physical out of the four and loves to tackle and is a downhill football player in regards to supporting the run game. He’s been awesome and a tremendous worker in the weight room.”

The Balers have been fortified by the addition of transfers Shawn Lacerda (Wilcox), who played receiver last season, and Abraham Solorio (Santa Teresa), a 6-1, 220-pound tight end who could also see a lot of time at the team’s Baler defensive end position. 

Keith Pelaiz Jr. has moved to the Baler position, and Smith has commended him for learning and competing well. In fact, competition within the team has been so fierce that Smith said he has to be weary of the “war wounds” that accumulate when guys are playing at a top-notch intensity all the time. 

“Our guys love competing and our practices have a lot of energy in them,” Smith said. “There is a little bit of talking going back and forth, but in a friendly manner. The No. 2 guys are challenging the No. 1 guys, and we are starting to see it pay off especially for the juniors in their improved play.”

Andrew Speech, seen here in a 7 on 7 contest earlier this summer, promises to be a dynamic playmaker. File photo.

Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]

Emanuel Lee
Emanuel Lee
Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.

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