APTOS — Undersized. Unathletic. Inexperienced.
The Aptos offensive line has heard those words plenty of times throughout the year, but neither have lingered in their minds for more than a few seconds.
A few words that have stuck? Put a hat on a hat.
Or as Aptos head coach Randy Blankenship likes to say, “PUT A HAT ON A HAT!”
“He loves to say that,” said senior center Hayden Mennie.
And the guys up front love to oblige.
Let me serve as a dictionary of football phrases for those of you who are lost. To "put a hat on a hat" simply means to block every defender that the blocking scheme calls for, or — and this is as simple as it gets — to do your job.
Aptos’ starting quintet of Josh Sousa-Jimenez, Angel Morales, Levi Slay, Adam Candelario and Mennie have taken pride in that. They’re not the biggest, they’re not the fastest and they most certainly do not have an overwhelming amount of experience — only one played a full varsity season before this fall. But they’ve done their job to the best of their ability over, and over, and over again.
They’ll need to do that a few more times if Aptos hopes to win its fourth Central Coast Section Championship this decade.
After being stuck in limbo for the better half of a week because of poor air quality stemming from the ongoing Camp Fire near Chico, the Mariners (8-2) will finally kick off the CCS Open Division III playoffs.
No. 5 Aptos will meet No. 4 Terra Nova at Watsonville High on Saturday at 7 p.m.
It will be a rematch of last year’s game, which the Tigers (8-2) won 24-14.
Mennie, a third-year varsity starter, is the lone member of this year’s offensive line that saw significant time in last year’s tilt.
That inexperience doesn’t have the Mariners worrying one bit.
It hasn’t held them back from being a dominant offensive force through their first 10 games — Aptos has averaged 44.5 points and 392.8 yards of offense in the regular season — and Blankenship doesn’t expect it to creep into their minds on Saturday.
“They give me their best effort nearly all the time,” Blankenship said. “Technique-wise, occasionally they’ll screw up, but give me a line that wants to give me a great effort all the time and we’re going to do something with them. Especially in our offense.”
The Wing-T, an offense based on speed, precision and deception, has helped mask the Mariners’ lack of size. Mennie, a bulky 6-foot-1, 235-pounder, is the only Aptos offensive lineman that looks the part. Sousa-Jimenez (5-foot-7, 210 pounds), Morales (5-8, 190) and Candelario (5-8, 190) are all 5-foot-8 or shorter and only one weighs more than 200 pounds. Slay, meanwhile, measures in at 6-foot-even on his tippy toes, and weighs the same as the team’s star running back Marcos Reyes — 190 pounds.
That unlikely band of “brothers” has moved some of the biggest and strongest the Monterey Bay has had to offer en route to a third-place finish in the powerhouse Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan division. They helped Aptos produce 459 rushing yards against Palma’s large and athletic defensive front, and pounded away at Salinas’ massive defensive line for 261 yards on the ground.
Their next challenge? A Terra Nova defensive line that features 6-foot-2, 280-pound Vlad Romashko, 6-foot-3, 260-pound Tory Young and 5-foot-11, 276-pound Brian Gantt. They’ll also have their hands full with speedy defensive ends Milo Greenwood and Christian Novelo, whom have combined for 10 sacks this fall, according to the stats kept on MaxPreps.
“They have some good players on the defensive line, especially on the edges,” Mennie said. “That’s always fun, especially with our two tackles being sophomores. But I think our guys will be ready.”
The graduation of a trio of starters — all three, Alex Austen, Justin Torres and Joseph Gutierrez-Lee, earning all-league recognition last season — left the Mariners playing musical chairs on the offensive line heading into the summer. Blankenship had a hunch Mennie and Souza-Jimenez, who started five games during his junior year before a knee injury knocked him out for the season, would earn starting positions, but the other three caught him by surprise.
Morales, a senior, entered the summer buried down the depth chart, and sophomores Slay and Candelario showed promise but were still a little rough around the edges. Yet all three worked their way into the starting slots as the summer went on, and by the time Aptos traveled down to Templeton for the season opener the group was in lockstep, pushing defensive players all over the field and creating holes for Aptos’ offensive weapons.
“I love them,” Sousa-Jimenez said. “People say that we’re pretty small, but we can still do damage.”
Sousa-Jimenez said he “never” had a doubt about the Mariners’ mix up front, but Mennie and Blankenship both said they would be lying if they expected this year’s group to be as successful as it has been.
Slay, too, was a bit stunned with how well the different personalities meshed over the course of the summer and fall. Despite the age gap between the seniors and sophomores, the group has broken down the barriers and built up bridges of communication with every rep in practice.
Mennie, who was in the same spot as Slay and Candelario two years ago, has been like an older brother for his younger teammates, answering any questions they have about a step, scheme or assignment. He, Sousa-Jimenez and Morales have also gathered the lot for hangouts after practice and during the summer. They hit the beach one day, and also held a cook out at Mennie’s house where they devoured six pounds of ground beef — among other barbecue classics.
“Building it together, getting more familiar with the group personally, has allowed me to play better and everybody else as well,” Slay said.
Aptos finished 11 points shy of completing the regular season with a perfect 10-0 record and a PCAL-G championship. The offensive line took the shortcoming personally, as a pair of short-yardage situations ultimately sunk the Mariners’ hopes of a league title.
Along with trying to right the wrongs of last year’s playoff exit, the offensive line hopes to make up for the failings of the regular season by hanging the program’s fifth CCS banner.
The Mariners might not be favored in any playoff game they play over the course of the next three weeks — top-seeded Palma awaits the winner of Saturday’s game — but that won’t worry the offensive line in the slightest.
They’ll do what they’ve been doing all year.
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.