FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Rooted in rivalry

Gilroy head coach Greg Garcia hoists the VFW Memorial Trophy

Changes in the last decade are bringing out the best in South
Valley football
Electricity was in the air Friday at Richert Field.

It hummed amid a turbulent sea of red, blue, green and yellow as varsity football teams from San Benito, Gilroy, Independence and host Live Oak came together for a full-contact jamboree that was anything but an average scrimmage.

Pent-up excitement was palpable with each play, each tackle, each break from the huddle. Excitement for the start of not just high school football — only one week left — but for South Valley football.

If it was held a decade ago, Friday’s jamboree would have comprised the entire South Valley lineup. Instead, it was about halfway there.

That same night, the Sobrato Bulldogs were at Pioneer High School, holding their own against a Blossom Valley Athletic League ‘A’ team and holding the upperhand against two more foes from the ‘B’ and ‘C’ divisions.

Meanwhile in Gilroy, the first class of varsity football players from Christopher High School rested up after a long week of training camp. The Cougars were originally going to play in the jamboree, but backed out because their coach had to tend to a family emergency.

The landscape of South Valley football has certainly changed. Though the recent openings of Sobrato (2003) and Christopher (2009) have taken away from the area’s cornerstone rivalries (Gilroy-Live Oak, Gilroy-San Benito), they have also opened the door to new traditions. Instead of having to play their entire nonleague schedule far from home, local teams have the opportunity to tune up against each other without sacrificing strength of schedule.

“Who knows? Maybe we’ll have our own South Valley league with them some day,” Live Oak coach Jon Michael Porras said in March. “We’re all for keeping traditions and starting new ones.”

This season, ‘B’ league Christopher will play the Acorns and Bulldogs for the first time, with the winner earning a worthwhile amount of playoff points.

The stakes will be the same for Live Oak and Gilroy’s opener Friday, plus the Sept. 17 El Toro Bowl between Live Oak and Sobrato and the Nov. 5 Prune Bowl between Gilroy and San Benito.

Gilroy and Christopher will also square off for the first time at the varsity level Nov. 12.

“We wanted to play Gilroy this year, too, but it didn’t work out,” said Sobrato coach Nick Borello, whose team wraps up nonleague play Sept. 10 against Leland. “We still have a good nonleague schedule. It’ll be a great challenge for us.”

Here is a look at where the South Valley rivalries stand today:

Live Oak-Sobrato:

Though a spirited game that draws nearly half of Morgan Hill, the El Toro Bowl has yet to produce a close game.

The Bulldogs made this cross-town clash a true rivalry last year by beating the Acorns 27-6 for their first El Toro Bowl victory.

Live Oak handily won the previous two meetings, rallying past the Bulldogs 22-7 in the first round of the Medium School Division playoffs and blanking them 27-0 in a 2008 opener.

Gilroy-Christopher:

Is there a bigger rivalry game than the Prune Bowl between the Gilroy High Mustangs and the San Benito Haybalers?

Ask folks around Gilroy two years ago and most would answer no.

Poll some of those same people again in 2010 and their answers may be a bit different.

Gilroy is now a two-team town, forever changing the landscape of prep football in the Garlic City, and adding even more excitement and louder chatter from supporters of both programs. But a fiercer rivalry than San Benito-Gilroy? Perhaps, someday.

Either way, Friday nights are going to be jumping at both ends of town.

“It’s going to be a rivalry, there is really no way to get around it,” Christopher High head coach Tim Pierleoni said. “I think it will get more heated and more heated as time goes on. We are all good friends and we would like to keep it as friendly as possible.”

Mustangs’ head coach Greg Garcia naturally concurs with Pierleoni; a rivalry between the cross-town schools is inevitable, but also insists the matchup will not divide a tight-knit community beyond the game itself.

“It’s going to be bigger for the kids than the coaches,” Garcia said. “The coaches have been together, you know, (Darren) Yafai, (Tim) Pierleoni, myself and even the principal (of Christopher) John Perales, we all have had close ties and relationships.

“We have been to other schools and when you go there it is very inhospitable. It’s one of those things where the spirit level is wrong. Sure, they are supporting their team, but the things that are said or done are malicious and wrong. It’s unpleasant.

“I’ve never really sensed that at Gilroy. I don’t think our community members have that in them.”

Both coaches also agree that it will be a few years before the CHS-GHS rivalry surpasses or even catches up to the magnitude of a Balers-Mustangs clash. But as time passes and people come and go from the area, the biggest game of the regular season will happen on the turf of Garcia-Elder Sports Complex.

“It’s like when you play your brother in basketball in the front yard. You want to beat him and take it to him, but you are going to leave it there as soon as the game is over,” Pierleoni said.

“It’s going to be good, hard, clean football but after that I think we are going to have come together as a town and keep our witts about us.”

The teams play Nov. 12.

Gilroy-Live Oak:

This used to be a cancel-all-plans-and-get-there game. Though it has gradually lost some of its luster of the last decade, the Gilroy-Live Oak showdown is still a classic. Bragging rights among the players, for sure, and most likely some in the stands, too. Alumni are always out in full force for this one.

Gilroy played ungracious hosts in the teams’ season opener last year, sending the Acorns back up Hwy. 101 with a 36-13 loss.

“Some people still consider Gilroy-Live Oak the big rivalry,” Gilroy head coach Greg Garcia said. “It changes over time and people will always have their opinions.”

Neither team wants to lose the first game of the season. Who will prevail? Find out this Friday at Richert Field in Morgan Hill.

San Benito-Gilroy:

Two words: Prune Bowl.

Utter that phrase to Hollister and Gilroy residents and look out.

The Mustangs have snagged three straight VFW Memorial Trophies from the Balers, including a stunning 35-30 upset during last season’s 53rd annual contest.

San Benito still holds the slight edge in the series, though, controlling a 29-23-1 lead.

“It’s been the community rivalry for years on end,” Gilroy head coach Greg Garcia said. “There is history behind it. Two cities separated by the 25, two different counties. The two communities just shut down and play each other.”

The distaste transcends each sport at both schools, from football to tennis, basketball to baseball.

The rivalry won’t be going anywhere any time soon, although some believe that with the advent of Christopher High School in Gilroy, the rivalry may be lessened as the seasons go by, and as the Christopher-Gilroy rivalry inevitably grows.

The 54th annual Prune Bowl is slated for Nov. 5 in Gilroy.

San Benito-Palma:

For the San Benito Haybalers, trying to figure out which team is your biggest rival isn’t easy — it often comes with the territory of being such a large school.

But for private powerhouse Palma, one team is always circled on the calendar, no matter what.

“I know Hollister-Gilroy is big, but for us [Hollister’s] a big rivalry,” Palma head coach Jeff Carnazzo said. “It’s fun and we look forward to it. It’s healthy and Chris (Cameron) does a good job with them, getting them ready.”

And it often doesn’t matter if one team is having a down year or not. Three years ago, during a season in which San Benito (3-3) and Palma (5-1) were on opposite ends of the standings, the Chieftains controlled a comfortable 17-0 lead entering the fourth quarter.

They managed to narrowly win 17-14 after the Balers found the end zone twice in the final stanza, though.

“It goes to show how rivalries are,” Carnazzo said. “It doesn’t matter which team is up and which team is down, you know it’s gonna be a close game.”

Few games will be able to top the instant classic that took place last season between the two power football teams in front of a packed Salinas Sports Complex.

With the TCAL title on the line, Palma grabbed a 24-17 lead with three minutes remaining before the Balers marched down the field to find paydirt with just 19 seconds on the clock.

Opting for the two-point conversion and the win, though, San Benito fell short, and Palma held on to a 24-23 victory in the waning seconds.

“You know that no matter what the records are, that it will be a great game,” Carnazzo said.

San Benito and Palma will meet in Hollister Nov. 12.

Josh Weaver, Scott Adams and Andrew Matheson contributed to this story

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