FOOTBALL: Tonight’s Prune Bowl is Mustangs’ postseason

Greg Garcia and the Mustangs celebrate last season's win.

GHS goes for fourth straight victory in 54th rivalry game
In the realm of Prune Bowl lore, three years is an excruciatingly long time.

On Nov. 9, 2007, the San Benito Haybalers handed the VFW Memorial Trophy over to the Gilroy Mustangs after a 57-27 Prune Bowl loss on its home field.

One thousand and ninety days have passed between that night and tonight’s annual bash between two programs with a deep and bitter rivalry.

Gilroy’s senior class hasn’t witnessed a loss to San Benito, while conversely, the Baler seniors haven’t had the trophy in their possession – enough motivation to move a mountain, metaphorically speaking.

The premise to this year’s saga is simple: The Balers are fighting for postseason position and a possible share of the Tri-County Athletic League crown, while the Mustangs are playing for pride to salvage a sub-par season. Rivalry games are unpredictable. Teams, players and coaches alike have learned to prepare for anything and expect nothing.

Gilroy’s Central Coast Section playoff hopes hinged on a victory in 2009. This year, the Mustangs are 1-7 and 0-5 in league. There are no playoffs, leaving tonight’s 54th Prune Bowl – and a Week 10 matchup with crosstown foe, Christopher High – the championship-esque games for GHS.

“We are telling the kids that they are playing two bowl games back-to-back,” GHS head coach Greg Garcia said. “They are in their championship season, their postseason. They want it. It’s verbally there. It’s about putting it together.”

Last year’s improbable 35-30 GHS upset victory over San Benito in the 53rd annual Prune Bowl proved anything can happen. The back-and-forth battle left one lingering lesson: a desperate team is a dangerous one.

“This is their last game of the league season. This is their most important game of the league season,” said San Benito head coach Chris Cameron. “And then next week they have the in-town rivalry now with Christopher, so the last two games of the season, to me, are real meaningful to them. Forget all the other stuff that’s happened throughout the course of the season, these last two games are the season for them.”

Knowing full-well the Mustangs will come out with a chip on their collective shoulder in defense of the trophy they have stored three years in a row, Cameron said execution is what it boils down to for the Balers (5-3 overall, 3-1 in TCAL), whose defense and special teams surrendered kickoff return touchdowns of 85 and 90 yards and a receiving score of 67 yards in last season’s defeat.

“Once practice starts, you don’t think about Gilroy and the trophy and all the rest of that stuff. You think about executing what you’re supposed to execute, and that’s how we’re coaching and that’s how the kids play it during practice,” Cameron said. “You don’t think about, ‘Hey, it’s Gilroy.’ That stuff just kind of goes out the window.”

Each team has its signature-style offense — the Balers’ triple-option attack and the Mustangs’ air attack — and neither will stray from what they do best. But a few trick plays aren’t out of the question.

“We’ve been stoning the run the last couple of weeks pretty good,” Cameron said. “So, I think, they’re gonna come out throwing the ball a little more than they did earlier in the season.”

“It’s about improving every week. That’s the push,” Cameron added. “It’s not the playoffs. It’s not, to me, the so-called hype of the game of the week. It’s about getting better, man. It’s about each kid making an effort to get better every day.”

From Gilroy’s standpoint, stopping the run is first and foremost in keeping the Balers under wraps.

“They are going to say, ‘This is our football. If you want to try and stop us, we are going to catch you some way, shape or form,'” Garcia said.

“Every week we have gotten a little bit better. After the (Palma) game, the respect our team got from their coaches, they told us we were the toughest team they played all year. It showed the kids that they can play with a championship-caliber team.”

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