Aptos High running back Caden Prichard is tackled by Palma High's Drew Molinari and Noah Orozco during a football game at Rabobank Stadium in Salinas, California on Friday night, October 21, 2022. (Raul Ebio - The Pajaronian)

SALINAS—The race for first place in the Pacific Coast Athletics League Gabilan Division is not over for the Aptos High football team despite last week’s heartbreaking loss at Rabobank Stadium.

The Mariners traveled to Salinas to face off against rival Palma, hoping to stay atop of the league standings. 

However, it was the Chieftains who came away victorious on a last-second 33-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Gio Gutierrez to help them sneak past Aptos, 24-21, in a back-and-forth thriller on Oct. 21.

With the loss Aptos, drops to 6-2 overall and are now 3-1 in PCAL Gabilan Division play this season.

Aptos coach Randy Blankenship said it all came down to who was more physical.

“I appreciate all my kids’ effort, but it came down to who was more physical and they were more physical, the way they celebrated you can tell they wanted it bad, we didn’t play like we wanted the game bad,” he said. “Palma outplayed us, they had the fighter’s edge.”

Blankenship said after last week’s win against powerhouse Salinas High there’s usually a little let down. But, he doesn’t blame their work ethic during last week’s practice.

“We had a really good week at practice, but I told them this doesn’t mean anything if we don’t come out and play with the same intensity as Salinas,” he said.

It was a game of long drives and minimal chances as Aptos only was able to possess the ball just four times, while Palma possessed the ball five times.

The Mariners started the fourth quarter with the ball and were moving fast with a chance to take the lead until Matt Hood’s pass attempt to the end zone was intercepted by Palma defender Lucas Milburn. 

The interception gave the Chieftains the ball at their own 5-yard line with nine minutes left in the game.

“They played it well, slid the safety over and I had a bad read and threw it up there hoping my big guy [Koko Banks] would have a chance to make a play,” Hood said on his late interception.

Palma made sure Aptos had as little time as they could for them to work with.

The Chieftains offense drove down the field to the Mariners’ 26-yard line and killed nearly nine minutes to set up a game-winning field goal.

On a fourth-and-11 play with just 12 seconds left in the game, Palma brought out Gutierrez for a 43-yard field goal attempt.

After a few attempts to freeze the kicker by Aptos, Gutierrez attempted his kick and it was blocked by a Mariner defender.

However, a penalty for hurdling the center was called on Aptos, which gave Gutierrez another try and an extra ten yards for an easier attempt.

From 33 yards away, Gutierrez’s kick split the uprights for the game winner and gained control of the PCAL Gabilan Division.

Palma coach Jeff Carnazzo earned his 200th career victory in what has been a historic 23-year career. He tied the Monterey County record with former Palma coach and Hall of Famer Norm Costa.

Aptos still has a chance to get a share of the league crown. But it will need help from Salinas High (7-1, 3-1), which has to beat the Chieftains (7-1, 4-0) on Nov. 4 in order to force a three-way tie for first place. 

Palma scored on its opening possession with a 14-yard touchdown catch by Drew Molanari to close out a six-minute drive for a quick 7-0 lead to open up the game.

The Mariners responded right away with a 4-yard touchdown run by Hood to get on the scoreboard, yet, they still trailed 7-6 after missing the extra point attempt. 

Aptos junior Matt Bush said the offense was locked and they were nearly unstoppable as they scored in three of their four possessions. 

“We just didn’t have the ball long enough, we had four drives and scored in three of them,” he said. “We couldn’t do much more on offense.”

Aptos’ defense came up and forced a turnover on downs on Palma’s ensuing possession, giving the Mariners the ball back at their own 18-yard line.

Aptos cashed in on the turnover with a four yard touchdown run by Lawrence Ingram and Hood converted the 2-point attempt, giving the Mariners a 14-7 with seven minutes left in the half.

The Chieftains punched back with a five-minute drive capped off with a 9-yard touchdown run by JC Escutia that tied the game at 14-all going into halftime.

Aptos began the second half with an explosive 30-yard touchdown run by Jordan Torres and regained the lead at 21-14. The lead didn’t last for long.

Palma’s offense started to get in a groove of its own and slowly marched down the field, killing seven minutes off the game clock.

The Chieftains tied the game at 21-all with a 12-yard touchdown catch by Logan Saldate.

With the game tied going into the fourth quarter, it seemed like whoever had the ball at the end would win.

Hood’s costly interception in the final stanza proved to be the difference and it allowed Palma to drive down the field for the game-winning score.

“It really sucks losing this, we just got to get back to work next week, and flush it. It was a tough one” Hood said.

The Mariners (6-2, 3-1) will host back-to-back league games starting with Alisal (3-5, 1-3) on Oct. 28, followed by the regular season finale against Hollister on Nov. 4. Kickoff is slated at 7:30pm for both games. 

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