After spending back-to-back years experiencing one-and-done postseasons, senior linebacker John Barrera knew exactly what was needed to prevent Saturday’s opportunity from slipping away.
With only seconds left in the Central Coast Section Division I championship game against Milpitas – and the Balers clinging to a one-score lead – Barrera made the play to seal the victory, jumping an underneath route to record the Balers’ third interception off Ronnie Reed, handing the final blow to the Milpitas (9-4) championship dreams.
After all the up and downs of the season, the interception was all San Benito (8-5) needed to stun the Trojans and win the section championship 35-28 at Independence High in San Jose.
It is the sixth CCS title in the school’s history and first since 2005. San Benito was the only public school to win a section title this year.
“I know I had to make a big play and I’m just glad I finally made one to close the game,” Barrera said. “It was crazy … It’s just full of great emotion. I was crying I knew we won. It was totally happiness.”
The victory capped a nearly unbeatable streak for San Benito, which won six of its last seven games to earn the section title. Less than a month ago, the Balers weren’t sure if they would even play a game in the postseason, but after sneaking in, they refused to lose.
“It proved that we had a lot of heart,” senior Jorge Perez said. “It proved to everyone that doubted us that we would come out and do this. We did the unthinkable. A lot of people didn’t believe in us and we showed them wrong.”
The game was as wild as the Balers’ 5-5 regular season.
At times San Benito looked like a juggernaut – allowing only 23 first-quarter yards and scoring on its first two possessions – but at times it struggled, giving up a 28-0 lead in a quarter and a half.
San Benito went nearly two full quarters without a first down in the game, and its defense couldn’t slow the power running game of 280-pound Vita Vea, who ran for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
But with the game tied at 28 with less than seven minutes to go, San Benito rediscovered its offense when it needed it the most.
Starting on their 20-yard line, the Balers used nearly five minutes to methodically drive down the field – racking up five first downs – and retake the lead.
On the drive, San Benito pounded Damien Botelho, who ran for 30 yards on the drive, and received a 23-yard pass from David Stanton (5-for-10 for 57 yards, 11 carries for 56 yards) to Cody Frietas to pull the Balers inside the 15-yard line.
From there, Botelho (14 carries for 64 yards) gave the Balers the lead for good on a 10-yard run with a little more than two minutes left.
“That was the best drive that I’ve ever played,” he said. “I was exhausted. I got hit in the ribs a couple of times but we were able to do it. When I crossed that finished line … It was the best feeling ever. I was going crazy.”
On the drive, San Benito used – for the only time all year – different wrinkles in their overall offensive scheme, head coach Chris Cameron said.
“We haven’t showed those yet and we came out on that last drive and poured it all out,” he said. “We got some yards and just plowed it in.”
But it wasn’t just the new plays that helped, quarterback David Stanton said.
“Determination,” he said. “We were determined to win it. We didn’t want to lose. We felt we could get those first downs to get that touchdown. It was amazing. I didn’t know we scored that touchdown until I looked up and everyone was cheering. But it was the best feeling. We won.”
But the game wasn’t finished until the final pass fell into the hands of the leaping Barrera.
“It’s amazing,” said captain Noah Brann. “I’m speechless right now. I’m proud of this team. We couldn’t have done it without any of these guys. I don’t have any words to describe it.”
Needing to get off to a fast start, San Benito did just that in the first quarter. Despite using the oversized Vea and the speedy Squally Canada (13 carries for 30 yards) Milpitas struggled against the San Benito defense, punting on its first four possessions.
Meanwhile, San Benito’s offense led by junior quarterback Stanton took full advantage of its short field. The Balers started inside the 40-yard line on their first two possessions and scored quickly.
Behind a 6-yard Stanton touchdown run, San Benito took an early 7-0 lead. After another Milpitas three-and-out, Botelho put San Benito up 14-0 in the first quarter with a 2-yard run.
“It was the best feeling of my life,” Botelho said. “I played Pop Warner just to do this. This is my dream.”
In the second quarter, though, San Benito pulled away thanks to senior Cody Cameron. On third down from its own 30-yard line, Milpitas’ Reed’s pass was deflected by Rob Soto and fell into the waiting arms of Cameron.
The SBHS safety raced down the right sideline untouched and scored from 50 yards out to give the Balers a 21-0 lead. On the Trojans’ next offensive play, Perez stripped the ball from Vea at the 20-yard line and Cameron returned the ball for another score.
“That gave us the big lead that we rode for a while and forced them to play catch up,” Chris Cameron said. “It was important because it ended up winning us the game it was about momentum because they are a good football team obviously. They turned the ball over a couple of times and we took advantage.”
But after the turnovers, Milpitas found its groove. The Trojans scored their first points with seconds left in the first half, as Vea rumbled in from 16 yards.
In the second half, SBHS turned the ball over for the first – and only – time and Veat scored on the very next play.
Throughout the third and early fourth quarters, San Benito couldn’t find anything on offense, as Milpitas padded it stats. In the game, the Trojans gained 318 yards – 273 on the ground – while the Balers were held to only 177.
But four turnovers cost the Trojans in the end.
“They scored the touchdowns but we stopped them when it counted and that’s the difference,” Barrera said. “It was just momentum and emotion. It overwhelmed us and we stopped them when we had to. Everyone wanted to win a ring. All of us seniors didn’t want to stop. We just wanted to keep going. We just overpowered everything.”
And in the end, as the Milpitas players sat on the field in shock and San Benito rushed to the stands, the once 2-4 Balers completed an improbable run, Cameron said.
“We created momentum and it kept going in the playoffs and we continued to get better,” he said. “It’s just a great group of kids. They are late bloomers. We had one of the greatest turnarounds probably in the history of the school and maybe beyond that.”