Tony's Thoughts: Mariners focusing on CCS title, not history heading into Saturday

Aptos senior running back Marcos Reyes (6) escapes a Salinas tackler during a PCAL-G football game earlier this season. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

Hunter Matys would like to say he was inspired to become the deadly dual-threat quarterback he is today after watching the Aptos football team complete its historic Central Coast Section title three-peat in 2015. But the truth is, the Mariners’ win over Hillsdale in the CCS Division IV championship game didn’t really mean much to him.

“I was still trying to figure out who Coach B was at that time,” Matys said, referring to Aptos head coach Randy Blankenship.

Blankenship wasn’t surprised by his QB’s answer.

“Makes sense,” the coach said. “They were freshmen.”

Fast-forward to today, and Matys has a better understanding of the program’s streak of championships from earlier this decade, and how tough it is to win a section title.

So when he and the No. 5-seeded Mariners show up to Westmont High for Saturday’s CCS Open Division III championship game against No. 2 Sacred Heart Prep, there will be no doubt that the outcome will mean a little more than that of the 2015 final.

“We’ve worked our [butts] off to get here, and now it’s time to fight,” Matys said during a Tuesday evening practice. “Time to fight and finish.”

And possibly earn a special place in CCS history.

Aptos will have a shot to win its fourth section title of the decade, a feat only two public school programs have managed to accomplish. Live Oak in Morgan Hill won four titles in the 1980s, and Los Gatos impressively won six during the 2000s. Los Gatos — a 14-time CCS champ — also ruled the 1990s, tying Leland with three section titles over the decade. This decade, Aptos and Half Moon Bay each have three CCS titles to their name. The former had their streak of three straight from 2013-15 and the latter three-peated from 2015-17.

Blankenship, the ultimate block-out-the-distractions coach, would like to keep the talk of history to a minimum heading into Saturday, and it seems like he’ll get his wish.

For most of the Mariners, the three previous CCS titles might as well have happened 50 years ago. Seniors Bubba Gallardo, Hayden Mennie, Angel Aparicio, Josh Souza-Jimenez and Marcos Reyes were the only players that joined the varsity team for the playoffs in 2015, and most of them don’t remember too much from the experience. Jack Harris’s key punt block is a memory they don’t have. Gavin Glaum’s three touchdown passes are a myth. And Blankenship sprinting away from a celebratory Gatorade shower is an old folktale.

Maybe the only thing they do remember is the excitement they saw from the senior class after winning the title.

“I was like, ‘man, this is where I want to be when I’m a senior,’” Reyes said. “I remember the moment they won. All the seniors were [excited] on the bus ride back…I was like, ‘this is what I want to work for.’ To be able to get this far and be with the guys another week or so, it means a lot to me.”

Added Gallardo: “That was a great experience to be up with those seniors and help them win a championship…I felt a little accomplished, but it wasn’t really ours. It was the seniors’ from that team — people that were on that team for the whole year. This year is our year.”

So the fact that Saturday’s game will take place at the same location where Aptos really became Aptos — the Mariners beat St. Ignatius in back-to-back years at Westmont High for their first and second CCS titles of the decade in 2013 and ‘14  — doesn’t mean much to any of the players.

“Every year is totally different, and this team showed something with their play last week,” Blankenship said. “They’re not ready to stop playing.”

Aptos put together its best overall game of the season in last week’s 49-6 win over top-seeded Palma in the semifinal round. Eleven rushers plowed through Palma defenders en route to 547 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, and the defense held one of the most explosive offenses in the CCS to zero points before the Chieftains scored in garbage time.

Blankenship said he gave his players until 3 p.m. on Monday — the start of the practice week — to enjoy the revenge win over Palma before forcing them to move their focus to the grand challenge that comes with playing S.H.P., the runner-up in the Peninsula Athletic League Bay division.

He was pleasantly surprised with how quickly his team moved on.

“When I talked to them last night after practice, I asked them if they have enough to go another week,” Blankenship said. “And after looking in their eyes, I said ‘OK, we’re good.’ They’re excited about playing.”

And excited about being tested by one of the premier programs in the section and state.

The Gators are also four years removed from one of the most impressive runs in CCS history. They won five CCS titles from 2010-15, including four straight starting in ’12, and also claimed a pair of NorCal championships in ’13 and ’15.

Like Aptos, much has changed since S.H.P. won its last section title. Coach Pete Lavorato is no longer at the helm of the Atherton-based private school of 629 students — he’s leading The King’s Academy into Saturday’s CCS D-V championship game against Carmel — and the Gators aren’t flinging the ball around like they used to. Mark Grieb — one of the all-time great Arena Football League quarterbacks — is now the coach, and the Gators run the same offense as Aptos, the Wing-T.

But one thing hasn’t changed at S.H.P.: size.

More than half of the players on the Gators’ 51-player roster are at least 6-feet-tall, and 17 of them weigh 190 pounds or more, including standout junior running back Tevita Moimoi (6-foot, 205 pounds) and star sophomore quarterback Raymond Price III (6-0, 190).

Moimoi has rushed for 904 yards and 14 touchdowns this fall, while Price has completed 60-of-106 passes for 752 yards and seven touchdowns. Two other stout rushers, seniors John Willard (6-0, 210) and Tommy Barnds (6-1, 200), have combined for 1,087 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.

All four of the Gators’ offensive weapons are bigger than all but one of the Mariners’ offensive linemen.

“They’re bigger, and taller and faster than we are,” Blankenship said. “But what else is new?”

That size discrepancy hasn’t stopped the Mariners from doing special things this season. Aptos last week set the program record for points in a season, eclipsing the old record of 545 points set in 2013, and it has a puncher’s chance at breaking the single-season rushing yards record of 5,502 from 2012 — it needs 343 yards on Saturday.

Flushing a pair of heartbreaking losses to Palma and Salinas at the end of the regular season, and scoring 111 points over two playoff games isn’t too shabby either.

“We can compete with anybody we want to compete with,” said Reyes, who this season broke the program records for career rushing yards and points. “It’s all mental.”

So maybe this year’s Mariners are a little too far removed from the champions of earlier in the decade to feel a connection to their accomplishments, but they still have the same mindset of the teams from yesteryear that led to the program’s ascension in the CCS landscape. They enjoy being the underdog, they love proving people wrong and when the playoffs begin the focus heightens.

That formula worked earlier this decade. We’ll see if it works on Saturday.

Editor’s Note: Tony’s Thoughts is a reoccurring column from Sports Editor Tony Nunez that dives into the local sports world with an emphasis in football in the fall. Contact Nunez at [email protected] or 761-7335.

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