It’s sometimes not about how a team starts, but it’s how it finishes.
That’s what the Mustangs of Gilroy High School did Friday night: They finished.
Despite being down 12-10 at halftime, two forced-fumble recoveries and three fourth-quarter touchdowns helped GHS (5-2 overall, 3-0 Tri-County Athletic League) to a 34-19 win over the Alisal High School Trojans on Friday night in Salinas.
“Alisal came out and smacked us in the mouth like tough teams do,” GHS head coach Steven Lo said. “They got after us in the first half and we were like ‘wow, what’s going on here? We have to start playing football again.'”
The Trojans (2-5 overall, 0-3 TCAL) held a Mustangs’ offense that is averaging 433 yards per game, to just 388 total yards on offense. GHS was held to its lowest first half totals of the season, 129 yards and one touchdown.
The Mustangs were able to fight through adversity and outscored Alisal 24-7 in the second half.
“Finishing is always a good thing,” Lo said. “Any time we can finish a game, it’s good. I don’t want to take anything away from (Alisal) because they’re tough, a really tough football team, and they took it to us for three quarters of football. I am proud of the way we finished and that’s something to build on at least.”
It was up to Niko Fortino and Jourdan Soares, who propelled the Mustangs offense out of deep water, hooking up on consecutive GHS drives in the fourth quarter to give the Mustangs a substantial 27-12 lead in the fourth quarter.
After an Alisal touchdown pass narrowed the scored 27-19 with 4:59 in the fourth quarter, the Mustangs workhorse running back Brandon Boyd scored on a 25-yard touchdown run that gave the Mustangs a 34-19 lead.
Alisal running back Oscar Mendez was tough-as-nails in the first half, rushing for 88 yards on 14 attempts, including a 25-yard run with 11:22 in the second quarter that gave Alisal it’s only lead at 12-10 after ASH’s placekicker missed his second of two extra point attempts.
Mendez (17ATT, 118YDS, 1TD) was a non-factor though in the second half, rushing just three times for 30 yards, and twice for fumbles.
After GHS failed to convert on the opening drive of the second half, Mendez broke free to Alisal’s 50-yard line, but was stripped by Mustangs’ linebacker Jose Betencourt, saving a would-be 71-yard touchdown.
“I was basically trying to catch up, and if I didn’t, we would have been done because that was going to be a huge momentum changer for them,” said Betencourt, who led the Mustangs with 13 tackles. “I saw him swinging the ball around, so I just said ‘this is mine,’ swung my arm, closed my eyes and just got it.”
Mendez fumbled once again in the third quarter, this time setting up a 23-yard field goal by Mario Gomez to give the Mustangs a slim 13-12 lead with 7:22 in the third quarter.
The Mustangs finally broke out of the stable in the fourth quarter, scoring on two consecutive Fortino passes to Soares, one for 29-yards with 10:22 and the other for 48-yards with 8:12 remaining.
“I had to let my team know that I was going to do everything I possibly could to help win this game, and I tried to let them know at halftime,” Soares said.
The Fortino-to-Soares connection, which is becoming a trademark phrase in Gilroy, gives Soares 14 of Fortino’s 23 touchdown passes on the year. Fortino also connected with Colin Humber for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 9:14 in the second quarter.
Soares (eight catches, 220 yards, 2 TDs) also had an interception on the first play of Alisal’s final fourth quarter drive that sealed the GHS victory.
Fortino, who has completed 69 percent of his passes this season, was an uncharacteristic 5-16 passing and held to under 100 yards (73) in the first half. The senior regrouped though, making some big passes down the stretch, and finished 13-29 for 193 yards three touchdowns and one interception.
“Our schedule is just going to get tougher from here, so we definitely cannot start out flat. But tonight just showed that we can finish,” Fortino said.
Despite the “flat” performance for the Mustangs, what stood out was the defense’s ability to hold Alisal to just seven points in the second half, the fewest the team allowed all season.
“The defense came clutch when our offense struggled, but our defense held them to seven points in the second half,” Soares said. “Seven points in a half…I’ll live with that any day.”
GHS brings its undefeated TCAL record back to Salinas as the Mustangs take on Salinas High School on Friday (Oct. 21) at 7:30 p.m.
Alisal recorded a safety in the first half – and that was it.
“After the kickoff to start the second half, our defense shut them down and our offense went to work,” GHS coach Bobby Griffith said.
Led by Alex Vega, Jordan Goldstein, Bubba Lara and Jose Salazar, and the offensive line, the Mustangs prevailed 27-2.
The offensive line figured things out and made huge holes for Goldstein, who had three rushing touchdowns for 150 yards. Quarterback Salazar came alive and threw for 150 yards and ran for 130 yards, one being an 80-yard quarterback-read off the edge.