SALINAS — Two measly yards.
For Aptos, that was the difference between an undefeated regular season, and a heartbreaking finish to an otherwise dominant Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan division campaign.
A week after falling one yard short of a game-winning touchdown against Palma, the Mariners fell a yard short of icing what would have been a title-clinching victory in Friday night’s 28-24 loss to Salinas at The Pit.
With the win, Salinas (7-3, 6-1) earned a share of the inaugural PCAL-G title along with Palma (9-1, 6-1), which blasted San Benito, 49-28, the night before to clinch its share.
The Mariners (8-2, 5-2) totaled 888 yards of offense over the last two weeks of the regular season.
It wasn’t quite enough to win a league championship.
“Last week and this week, we were one play away from being undefeated league champions,” said Aptos head coach Randy Blankenship.
Holding a 24-21 lead with a little less than five minutes left to play, the Mariners went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Cowboys’ 41-yard line.
Salinas got the stop it needed, and marched down on the ensuing possession for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:18 remaining.
Cowboys senior running back Poe Gaskins capped off the 11-play drive on fourth-and-1 with his third rushing touchdown of the second half.
He also made the game-sealing interception with 34.4 seconds left.
“If it came my way, I knew that out was coming, so I just had to jump it,” Gaskins said of the interception. “It was just my luck.”
Aptos also received a visit from Lady Luck on a fake fumble pass during the early moments of the fourth quarter. Senior quarterback Hunter Matys perfectly tossed the football off the turf and into the hands of senior backup quarterback Fisher Johnson, who then hit senior running back Marcos Reyes for a 19-yard touchdown to put Aptos up 24-13.
But that was the only bit of luck the Mariners had all game.
They dropped four interceptions, including one in the end zone and another that could have short-circuited the Cowboys’ game-winning drive.
Still, Blankenship and Co. were left feeling positive about their performance heading into the upcoming Central Coast Section playoffs.
“We gave a great effort, I love my boys,” Reyes said. “I’d do it all over again even if I knew that was the outcome. That was a great game.”
Aptos will be placed in the Open Division III bracket. It will find out where, who and when it will play at Sunday’s seeding meeting.
“Our goal was to win a league championship and we didn’t get it, but I think I got my football team back tonight,” Blankenship said. “That’s important. Really important.”
Reyes again had a big night on the ground, trucking through defenders for 158 yards and a touchdown to go along with his touchdown reception.
Salinas junior quarterback Carl Richardson helped the Cowboys offset Reyes’ brilliance with a slew of receivers in the passing game. He finished with 310 yards, a touchdown and an interception through the air.
He hit five different targets.
Gaskins was his favorite.
The small but speedy running back made nine receptions for 127 yards. He also gave the Mariners’ defense headaches running the ball in the red zone, as he scored rushing touchdowns of 1, 3 and 7 yards over the final two quarters.
His last two helped erase the Mariners’ 24-13 lead in the fourth quarter.
“We knew he was a beast,” Reyes said of Gaskins. “He’s got the wheels. He’s got the moves.”
Junior fullback Josh Powell gave Aptos the initial lead midway through the first quarter on a 1-yard plunge into the end zone.
Richardson’s 54-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Ivan Curiel tied it up just a few minutes later.
Reyes’ 5-yard score put Aptos ahead again, and senior safety Silvano Lopez made a touchdown-saving interception to keep the Mariners up 14-7 at the half.
Junior kicker Danny Dahel nailed a 28-yard field goal on Aptos’ first drive of the second half, but Richardson moved the Cowboys down the field on a 13-play drive and Gaskins punched it in to cut the deficit to single digits.
Aptos responded with an impressive 15-play drive that concluded with the fake fumble touchdown, but Salinas made all the plays down the stretch.
The two on fourth down, being the most important.
“Salinas made the play at the end when they needed to,” Blankenship said. “We get a first down there, we run the clock out.”
Aptos held Salinas to just 66 yards rushing.
Juniors Trevor Castesi and Dre Gomez each recorded a sack in the first half, but the Mariners’ pass rush didn’t bother Richardson much over the final two quarters, as Gaskins did well to find the open space vacated by blitzing linebackers.
“We had some pressure but not enough,” Blankenship said. “I didn’t say a lot to the guys, because I couldn’t. I’ve lost games before where I’ve found a football team. I think we found a team tonight even though we lost. We’ll just have to regroup, get healthy and head into playoffs.”
In other week 11 high school football action:
MVC 27, Watsonville 14 - Quinn Alexander scored a pair of rushing touchdowns, Nick Bautista and Daniel Brierley also scored touchdowns and Monte Vista Christian held off cross-city foe Watsonville in Friday night's PCAL-Mission game.
M.V.C. (5-5, 5-1) finished second in the division and will advance to the upcoming CCS playoffs.
The Mustangs will learn where, when and who they play at Sunday's seeding meeting.
For Watsonville, Blake Mares rushed for a score and also caught a touchdown pass from Oscar Magana.
The Wildcatz finished the season with a 4-6 overall record and a 1-5 PCAL-M standing.
Stevenson 49, Pajaro Valley 27 - The Grizzlies finished up their year with a PCAL-Santa Lucia loss on Saturday in Pebble Beach.
Pajaro Valley completed the season at 3-7 overall and 1-5 in the PCAL-SL.
NMC 35, St. Francis 12 - Brandon Ducusin tossed two touchdowns and rushed for another in the Condors' PCAL-Cypress win over the Sharks on Saturday in Watsonville.
Damon Robles added a pair of rushing touchdowns for N.M.C., which finished the year at .500 overall (5-5) and in PCAL-Cypress play (3-3).
Devin McLeod and Andy O'Rourke each had a rushing touchdown for St. Francis, which finished 4-6 overall and 1-5 in Cypress division action.