Eyes on the Prize

Eyes on the Prize

Before outlet malls, state-of-the-art shopping centers and Super
Wal-Marts, there were just the two small agricultural communities
of Gilroy and Hollister.
Gilroy – Before outlet malls, state-of-the-art shopping centers and Super Wal-Marts, there were just the two small agricultural communities of Gilroy and Hollister.

And before the world-famous garlic, the area was known for its prune industry.

Since then, for over 80 years, the Gilroy and San Benito (then Hollister) football teams have put civic pride on the line in the annual Prune Bowl.

That’s how deep-rooted the tradition is. It’s literally almost as old as the hills.

“I told our kids in practice, to me this is our biggest game, certainly the biggest rivalry game of year,” said former San Benito athletic director and current freshman team head coach Randy Logue. “It’s geographic rivalry. For many years, everyone in San Jose or San Francisco thought the world ended at Gilroy and never gave Hollister much in terms of recognition.”

It doesn’t end there. According to Logue, it was the “Country Bumpkins” (Hollister) vs. “The City Folks” (Gilroy), Santa Clara County vs. San Benito County.

But this year, something more is at stake than has been in the past: a potential spot in the playoffs.

With San Benito entering the game 2-3 and Gilroy coming in 3-2, a loss in the TCAL opener would mean a lot. Heading into last year’s Prune Bowl, which the ‘Balers won at Gilroy High 7-6, San Benito had only one loss and Gilroy was undefeated. So a league opening loss, said Gilroy head coach Darren Yafai, wasn’t as damaging.

But this year, it’s different.

“I think it is even more important because both teams have a few losses,” Yafai said.

For years, from the 1920’s until the early 50’s before the official Prune Bowl VFW trophy was given away, Hollister totally dominated the rivalry. It wasn’t until 1954 that Gilroy had it’s first win.

This week at a Mustang practice, the quarterback of that first Gilroy team to beat the Haybalers, Ron Leonti, gave an emotional speech.

Like Logue, this week Yafai made sure to educate his team about the historical and traditional importance of the Prune Bowl. Part of that meant having former players like Leonti and Steven Lo, who played center on the last Gilroy team (2001) to have beaten San Benito, share their experiences with the team.

“It doesn’t matter how a team enters the game,” said Lo, who now is an offensive line coach with the Gilroy varsity. “When this game happens, records get thrown out the window.”

The proof is in the records. Looking back through the years, there were several seasons where Hollister’s only loss in the regular season was to Gilroy in the Prune Bowl, like in 2001 and in 1985, Yafai’s senior year as a player for Gilroy.

“(San Benito) went to the CCS championship game,” Lo said of the 2001 season. “And they played on our field for (it).”

While the Prune Bowl is regarded by many locals as “the” rivalry game on the Gilroy and San Benito schedules, Yafai said there are some people that see Gilroy/Live Oak and San Benito/Palma as the real rivalries in TCAL, including those who make up the league schedule.

“Some people now think it’s Gilroy/Live Oak and Hollister/Palma so they leave those as the last games on the schedule,” Yafai said. Otherwise, the order in which the teams play each other rotates every two years.

Yafai believes this perception of TCAL rivalries stems back to the ’70’s and ’80’s when Palma and San Benito were league rivals in the Mission Trail Athletic League while Gilroy still played in the Monterey Bay League.

But from a recent player’s perspective, 2002 Gilroy graduate Lo sees the ‘Balers-Mustangs rivalry as the most important one.

“I still think it’s a big deal,” Lo said. “I run into a lot of players from Hollister. You rub it in their faces a little bit.”

In the past decade, the team doing the most rubbing-it-in has been San Benito. Since current head coach Chris Cameron took over, his teams have won nine of the last 11 Prune Bowls. Since the inception of the VFW trophy in 1956, San Benito leads the rivalry, 27-20. No game was played in 1967, a year when the two teams moved to separate leagues. In 1986, the only tie was recorded, a 14-14 decision during the Jeff Garcia era.

Though Friday’s outcome could be a toss up until the final buzzer, one thing is for sure. A crowd full of former ‘Balers and Mustangs from all generations will pack the Andy Hardin Stadium stands.

“(The Gilroy/San Benito game) is an old-timer’s rivalry,” said Gilroy special teams coach Craig Martin. “The old-timers, they live and die by this game.”

Added Logue, “I told my kids, you’re gonna see some ’05 letterman jackets. And it’s not from 2005.”

Logue said one of the team’s bus drivers played for Hollister years ago and can still remember the first play his JV team ran in the game against Gilroy – a dive play for 65 yards.

“I told them, you better make a positive memory (at the game) because if you drop a touchdown pass and years later you go to a (local) guy to buy a car, he’ll jack the price up on you,” Logue laughed.

The freshmen teams play today at 6pm. On Friday, the JV teams play at 5pm before the varsity kicks off at 7:30.

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