SALINAS — With his team down 13-0 at the half and looking overmatched, Aptos High head coach Randy Blankenship challenged several of his players to step up.
“I said, ‘somebody’s got to play,’” Blankenship said. “I said, ‘not one of you guys have played with the courage that we need. This is a sport played by men. You decided to play it so you have to play like a man.’”
Easily the youngest team Blankenship has had in his eight years at the school, Aptos grew up right before his eyes in Friday night’s massive 35-13 Monterey Bay League Gabilan division victory over five-time defending champion Palma High at Rabobank Stadium.
It’s Aptos’ (2-2, 1-0) first win over 11-time Central Coast Section champion Palma (1-3, 0-1) in six tries and it puts the Mariners in the driver’s seat of the MBL-Gabilan title race.
“It’s just nice to get revenge and put them in their place,” said Aptos junior running back Marcos Reyes. “This is our league now.”
Aptos moved to the powerhouse MBL-Gabilan in the offseason after the coaches in the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League decided to disband because of the Mariners’ six-year reign of dominance, in which they won 32 straight league games and three CCS titles.
Not many picked the Mariners to knock off the Chieftains, who, before Friday night, had lost only one league game since the MBL-Gabilan was formed five years ago. But Aptos once again proved the doubters wrong, rolling to 35 unanswered points after the intermission behind an impressive performance from its offensive line.
“If I was somebody picking, I wouldn’t have picked us either but I believed in our guys,” said Blankenship, who improved to 8-0 following a bye week with Aptos. “I just knew that they hadn’t lost a league game in a long time and we hadn’t lost one in six years. I told the kids somebody is going to go home a loser tonight and it’s not going to be us.”
Reyes had only 26 yards rushing heading into halftime but finished with 218 and two scores on 30 carries. He and sophomore fullback Josh Powell, who totaled 101 yards on 22 totes, were the focal points of an Aptos run attack that bullied the Palma defense on three straight 10-play scoring drives to start the second half.
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Senior running back Will Murphy and junior quarterback Hunter Matys ran for scores of eight and 22 yards, respectively, and junior outside linebacker Shane Modena sealed the win with a 46-yard pick six in the fourth quarter.
“We got outplayed in the second half,” said Palma head coach Jeff Carnazzo. “They controlled the ball and they wanted it more than we did. We missed tackles, we didn’t lineup correctly, they made adjustments and we didn’t adjust. It’s not all on my kids. We have to do a better job of coaching but we got outplayed in the second half.”
Like the Mariners, the Chieftains were hit hard by graduation after last year’s magical season in which they advanced to the CCS Open Division III championship and also played in a California Interscholastic Federation NorCal bowl game. Palma not only lost stars Emilio Martinez and Drew Dalman, who are playing NCAA football at University of San Diego and Stanford, respectively, this fall, but the Chieftains also graduated 31 other seniors.
Although the league season is only in its infancy, Carnazzo said his team needs to make significant strides very quickly in order to fight its way back into the title hunt.
“I’ve got to talk to them about how we play and how hard we play — with intensity for four quarters — because they’re not getting it yet,” Carnazzo said.
Palma’s offense looked effective enough in the first half, as the Chieftains jumped out to a 13-0 lead. Junior quarterback Grant Sergent scored on a 1-yard sneak in the first quarter and an interception from senior defensive back Peter Powers set up a 10-yard touchdown run from sophomore receiver Jon-Jon Berring in the second.
But Aptos made the adjustments on offense at the break and found success early and often during the final two quarters, running off-tackle with Reyes and up the gut on quick-hitting dives with Powell.
The Mariners’ defense also tightened in the second half. Palma sophomore running back Anthony Villegas had 113 yards rushing in the first half but was held to just seven in the second.
As a team, Palma had only four yards on the ground after halftime.
Aptos junior linebacker Silvano Lopez had two tackles for loss and teamed up for a sack with sophomore linebacker Dre Gomez on the final play of the game.
The resounding win over the league’s defending champ was a nice shot in the arm for Aptos, which had lost back-to-back games to close out its preseason schedule.
Blankenship said their week of practice leading up to Friday night was their best this season and gave all the credit to the scout team defense, many of which earned playing time because of their Herculean efforts in practice.
“This week we prepared accordingly,” Blankenship said.
Aptos will try to notch another win next week at Seaside High, which lost 47-21 to Salinas High.
“[The win] sends a message,” said Reyes, who also had four tackles for loss on defense. “Nobody thought we were going to beat Palma. We did it.”