VALLEJO — At 130 pounds, Benito Saldivar isn’t going to run over many defenders. But if you give him a hole, he’s off to the races.
Making his season debut for the Napa High football team after being out with a foot injury, the junior running back rushed for a career-high 286 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries Friday night as the Grizzlies cruised past Vallejo High, 33-7, at Corbus Field.
“It was frustrating,” Saldivar said of sitting out the first two games, “because I was watching my team work hard and I wanted to go in and work with them, but I had to sit out for the greater good,” he said. “All I could do was work out my upper body.”
It was the 116th meeting between the schools, who were meeting for the first time since discontinuing Northern California’s third-oldest rivalry in 2013.
Napa was hungry for a win after falling in overtime to Nevada Union the week before. It’s hard to believe they would have lost if they’d had Saldivar. He and starting offensive linemen Emilio Deianni and Cole Lex are also standout wrestlers, having all qualified for the North Coast Section Championships last winter. They and fellow starting linemen Filiberto Chavez, Leopoldo Contreras and Diego Flores seemed to wear down the Redhawks’ defense, opening holes wider and wider as the game progressed.
“It was nice to have the little guy running for us,” said senior Jose Santos Torres, who rotated in on the offensive line. “We were shooting ourselves in the foot, but after the first quarter we kinda picked it up and moved the ball better. We picked it up after last week, knowing our assignments, having better practices, being more intense, picking up on small things. Our offense changes from week to week, the way we line up, depending on the defense. We were mixing it up at first tonight, but we went with the run game after we saw what we could do.”
With freshman Anthony Tubridy getting his first varsity start at quarterback while regular starter Isaiah Newton and sophomore reliever Hunter St. Clair rested injuries, the Grizzlies punted on their first two series – despite recovering an onside kick to open the game with momentum.
With nine starters out due to injuries, including two-way players Brock Bowers and Jack Giguiere, Napa’s lineup was almost unrecognizable. Bowers was suited up, but head coach Richie Wessman said he made a game-time decision to let the junior rest with a mild ankle injury.
“We were missing our starting quarterback, starting tailback, starting safety, I could go on and on,” Wessman said. “We make no excuses and we find ways to get it done anyway.”
In between, however, Napa took a 2-0 lead when punter Erik Flores pinned Vallejo at its own 1-yard line and the Redhawks were tackled in their end zone on the next play.
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Saldivar was a fingertip tackle away from scoring on his first carry before a holding call doomed the Grizzlies’ second drive. Vallejo then fashioned a 10-play scoring drive that would have been a three-and-out if not for a roughing-the-kicker penalty. Jaymes Hart followed with a tackle-breaking, 25-yard run into Napa territory, setting up Gerald Greene’s eventual 17-yard touchdown pass to Jaquan Edwards. Dommanic Bell’s PAT put the Redhawks up 7-2, as they led Napa for the first time since 2009.
Napa’s next drive saw it turn the ball on downs after Saldivar was stopped a yard short of a first down. But a tackle for a loss by Isaac Rojas and Jesus Pimentel on third down forced another Vallejo punt, which rolled all the way to the Napa 5. No problem for the Grizzlies, as Saldivar found a hole up the middle big enough to drive a ferry through, found daylight, and outraced every Redhawk for a 95-yard touchdown run that, with another Vargas PAT, put Napa ahead for good, 9-7.
“There was a big hole and a guy came up and all I had to do was cut around him,” Saldivar said. “In the beginning they were getting us, but then our line started waking up and blocking more and I could feel things change.”
It was 16-7 a minute and a half later, after Rojas fell on a fumbled kickoff at the Redhawks’ 30 and Saldivar scored from 22 yards out shortly after.
Brodie Jacque recovered another fumble at midfield on Vallejo’s ensuing drive. A 15-yard Tubridy pass to Christoph Horton and a tackle-breaking 15-yard scamper by Saldivar set up the latter’s 2-yard scoring run that made it 23-7.
After a third straight Vallejo turnover, on an Aidan McDonald interception, Napa gave it right back when Tubridy was picked off by Pablo Suastegui-Torres and gutsy freshman tackled the defender himself at the Redhawks’ 35.
It was the only turnover of the night for Tubridy, whose high school resume coming in had consisted only of quarterbacking the freshman team to a 6-0 win last week.
“He’s very focused, very determined and very composed,” Wessman said. “He threw some great balls. Some were dropped and some were errant, but overall he did a fantastic job managing the game.”
Napa put the game away by opening the second half with a seven-play drive that included six Saldivar rushes, including a 3-yard touchdown standing up. Vargas capped his perfect night of kicking with a 27-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. For good measure, senior Justin Barnes ended Vallejo’s last two series with interceptions.
“We keep getting better every day,” Wessman said. “We’re practicing great. We’re just scratching the surface of how good we can be. This happened to me at USC in a couple of seasons, where a loss actually catapulted us to something great. My hope is that that will happen here, too. A lot of times when you have a young team that doesn’t know how to win, you come off a big win and you have a letdown. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen.