APTOS—The Aptos High football team will continue its quest for a second straight Central Coast Section Division III title thanks to an unsung hero.
Senior Hirotaka Kanai made the biggest play of the night for the Mariners in a 26-20 win against San Benito High in Friday night’s first round game at Trevin Dilfer Field.
Kanai said he missed out on a championship ring last year and he has his eyes set on one for this season.
“I want a big ring,” Kanai said. “To be a CCS champion is one of my biggest dreams. It’s so great and I love these guys.”
Kanai had 23 yards rushing and a touchdown on four carries. He was also a huge presence on defense, making big-time tackles, including the game-saving stop near the goal line.
“I can’t breathe,” said Kanai, who was exhausted after the game.
Kanai, an exchange student from Japan, wanted to come play football at Aptos last year, but he wasn’t able to make it. He said he’s come a long way from when he played back at home.
“When I was in Japan, my football level was so low,” he said. “But I’ve been starting now, it’s so great.”
Aptos senior Vaughen Holland had 36 yards rushing on four carries and two receptions for 63 yards.
But no carry was more gut-wrenching than the 13-yard run that was shadowed by a fumble, which was recovered by San Benito senior Oscar Arias with 2:19 left in the game.
The Haybalers were set up with a possible game-winning drive starting at their own 6-yard line.
Kanai said he remembered the last time both teams met. Aptos sophomore quarterback Nick Forbes threw a late interception that sealed a Haybalers’ win in their Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan division opener.
“I was so scared when the ball was fumbled because it was the same situation like last time,” Kanai said.
San Benito senior Juan De Leon wasted no time getting his team down the field with a 71-yard reception from junior quarterback Michael McShane.
But the Mariners’ defense held.
“That whole time I just thought that I’d cost the game,” Holland said. “I was just happy that we were able to get that stop on defense and keep it on our side.”
The Mariners will square off against top-seeded The King’s Academy (8-3) in the semifinals in Sunnyvale on Friday. The Knights are the returning D-V champions.
“Right now I’m just thinking about my teammates and I want to be able to play another game with them,” Holland said. “I’m happy we were able to come out here and outplay these guys.”
Senior Josh Powell led Aptos with 81 yards rushing and a touchdown on 16 carries.
Senior Dre Gomez also scored a rushing touchdown, while junior Alex Rosas had 30 yards rushing on four carries.
Aptos had 215 yards on the ground as a team.
Forbes completed 6-of-11 passes for 128 yards and had no turnovers.
Senior Danny Dahel was a perfect 2-of-2 on his field goal attempts from 27 and 35 yards.
The Mariners led 26-6 with 1:31 left in the third quarter but San Benito rallied.
The Haybalers were knocking on the door after De Leon’s clutch reception. McShane tossed three straight incomplete passes, including one to De Leon that he caught near sideline at the 2-yard line but was called incomplete by the referees.
Kanai saved Aptos’ season with his one-on-one tackle against De Leon on fourth down.
“Taka kills it,” Holland said.
Holland said he was thoroughly impressed that Kanai learned the game so quickly after moving from Japan, despite not knowing very much English.
“[Kanai] plays like a badass,” Holland said.
Still, the Mariners needed to kill the clock and had to pick up a first down to ensure the win. Aptos coach Randy Blankenship called Holland’s number and he ran for 16 yards to move the chains.
“I knew that if he’s going to have the trust to give it back to me than I’m going to try to make the most of it and keep trucking my feet,” Holland said.
Up next, the Mariners (6-5) take on the Knights in Sunnyvale on Friday at 7 p.m.
It’s going to be another big challenge, this time on the road. Holland said they’re going to have to lock up on defense and make sure the pass coverages are tight if they want to move on to the next round.
“And ball security is going to be a big thing for us, too,” he said. “We already have some coaches talking about new drills for ball security… we’re trying to go all the way.”