SALINAS — He’s been automatic in extra points all season. Perfect — always down the middle, kicking balls through the uprights into the dark Salinas skies above.
Yet, Isaac Mancera had yet to attempt a field goal this fall, partly because Salinas football coach Steve Zenk has this affection to run a play on fourth down, no matter where the ball is on the field, or what quarter the game is in.
“I’m not a big fan of kicking field goals,” Zenk said.
However, there are those rare exceptions to the rule and Zenk called for one Thursday late in the fourth quarter of a tie game, casting the spotlight on his sophomore kicker.
“I asked our kicker where do you think you’re good from,” Zenk said. “He said the 30-yard line. I said ok.”
If there was pressure, Mancera has ice in his veins, as he split the uprights from 33 yards out with 2:56 left in the game, giving the Cowboys a 17-14 decision over San Benito at ‘The Pit’.
“I thought it was a chip shot for him,” Zenk said. “He kicked it right down the middle. Hopefully he went home and did his homework. These kids have school Friday. I might stay up all night.”
The Cowboys are know 23-1 in the Gabilan Division since Zenk took over as the head coach — with that one loss coming at ‘The Pit’ to San Benito in 2018.
Having gotten 25 players back from COVID protocols on Tuesday, Salinas had just two days to prepare for the Balers, who came into the game 5-0, having held three teams without a touchdown this fall.
Even with the core of their roster back, the Cowboys were still without five starters for COVID related concerns, forcing Zenk to make adjustments to his lineup, including moving linebacker Damian Morales to the tailback spot.
The senior responded by rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, helping balance out Salinas’ offense, which came into the game averaging 42.5 points a game through its first three games.
“He (Morales) starts as an outside linebacker,” Zenk said. “But that was one of the moves we had to make. He hits the holes hard. He’s explosive. He gave us another dimension. He does a good job of moving his hips around so defenses can not take shots at him.”
Having had its game with Alisal canceled last week after COVID protocols striped Salinas of half its roster for six days, Zenk wasn’t sure how much rust his squad would have with an unexpected off week.
“Hell yes I was concerned,” Zenk said. “I kept it to myself. I told myself I need to stay calm. Defensively, we didn’t have much of a letdown. Offense is where the rust showed. The game happens fast. If you haven’t seen fast reps, it happens even faster.”
For the second time after an off week, the Cowboys found themselves trailing after San Benito scored the games first points when Ashton Buzzetta darted 15 yards for a touchdown – a drive that began after a failed attempt at fourth down.
Of course, it’s not like Salinas has gotten off explosive starts this fall, having produced just 21 points in the first quarter. Yet, it marked the first time all season that its vaunted defense gave up a touchdown in the opening 12 minutes.
While the Cowboys defense may have been missing Morales, his presence on offense changed the dynamics of the game as he exploded through holes created by his offensive line, capping a drive with a 1-yard plunge.
Morales was at it again on the ensuing drive as he broke free for a run of 18 yards, setting the stage of Nyziah Hunter’s heroics, as he took a short pass from Adam Shaffer, escaped a tackle, reversed field and turned into a blur for a 23-yard touchdown — his sixth of the year.
“He’s fun to watch when the ball is in his hands,” Zenk said.
While Salinas’ defense gave up its first points in the second half in its last three games, it was a late stand after Mancera’s field goal that kept the reigning three-time Gabilan Division champions undefeated as Aidan Flynn and Michael MacNeill both came up with sacks.
“Championship type games always come down to defense,” Zenk said.
While Zenk has guided Salinas to three league titles and a Central Coast Section crown in his first three full seasons, he is 4-0 for the first time since he took the job five years ago.
“I won’t allow us to look ahead,” said Zenk, perhaps in reference to a meeting with Palma in four weeks. “When you do not practice, you’re going to make mistakes. We made a lot. I lost count of the penalties. But we did not lose it when things didn’t go our way. That is a sign of a mature team.”
Contributed by local news sources