High School football roundup/photos: Molinari’s 3 TD runs ignite Palma (2023)

SALINAS — Converted receivers with track speed made for an effective, electric and explosive ground game.

While it’s a small sample size, Drew Molinari and Gavin Martinez combined for more touchdowns on the ground Thursday then the pair achieved through the air all of last season.

A tenacious special teams unit anchored by Noah Orozco created a pair of turnovers and pointed Palma in the right direction as it opened the season with a 41-12 win over Soledad at Rabobank.

  • High School football roundup/photos: Molinari’s 3 TD runs ignite Palma (1)

    Palma running back Drew Molinari, who rushed for three touchdowns, gains yardage in the second half against Soledad on Thursday at Rabobank Stadium in Salinas. Palma won its nonleague opener with a 42-12 win over Soledad. (Donald Fukui/Santa Cruz Sentinel)

  • High School football roundup/photos: Molinari’s 3 TD runs ignite Palma (2)

    Soledad’s DJ Valenzuela follows a block into the heart of the Palma defense in the second quarter of Thursday’s nonleague game against Palma. (Donald Fukui/Santa Cruz Sentinel)

  • High School football roundup/photos: Molinari’s 3 TD runs ignite Palma (3)

    Soledad wide receiver Victor Ruano takes a short pass while trying to elude the Palma defense Dominic Chaidez and Gavin Martinez. (Donald Fukui/Santa Cruz Sentinel)



Molinari and Martinez were both receivers last year for Palma, each finishing with the second-most catches on the team behind Notre Dame-bound Logan Saldate.

“Both ran well and hard,” Palma coach Jeff Carnazzo said. “We did a good job up front. We’re not going to have one guy get 35 carries like we have in the past. We feel we have multiple backs that can carry the load.”

Molinari and Martinez’s combined efforts produced 128 yards and four touchdowns on the ground for the Chieftains, who have been to the playoffs a Central Coast Section record 38 straight years.

“No matter what, the first game always makes you nervous,” Carnazzo said. “You do not know how they’ll react in crunch time. We got in the right mindset and set the tone.”

Particularly the special team units, notably Orozco, who blocked two punts, both of which set up touchdowns. In fact, Palma turned three turnovers into 21 unanswered points, using an interception from Matthew Garcia to set up another score.

“I can’t remember in my 33 years of coaching where we have blocked two punts in a game — by the same person,” Carnazzo said. “That put us in a good position. We came out well prepared and jumped on them early.”

Soledad, which won the old Pacific Coast Athletic League Cypress Division title last year with a school record nine-game winning streak, opened last year with a loss to Mission Division champion Soquel.

Molinari, who caught three touchdown passes last year, rushed for three touchdowns, including a 31-yard run following the first blocked punt by Orozco.

A member of The Herald’s All-County defensive team last year, Molinari added a pair of 3-yard touchdown runs, while Martinez had a 1-yard run. Both were part of Palma’s 400 relay team last year in track.

The Chieftains got a chance to showcase Saldate, who had touchdown catches of 80 and 20 yards from Thomas Nunes, who finished with 178 passing yards — 171 of those yards going to Saldate.

“Thomas threw some real nice balls and kept plays alive,” Carnazzo said. “He kept his vision downfield.”

Nunes’ 80-yard scoring strike to Saldate came one play after Soledad got on the scoreboard when DJ Valenzuela connected with Victor Ruano on a 5-yard scoring toss.

“Soledad’s quarterback (Valenzuela) made some nice plays with his feet,” said Carnazzo, whose squad will visit King City next Thursday. “He extended the drive. We could not get to him.”

Backup quarterback Ivan Salcido tossed a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jesse Argueta in the fourth quarter for the Aztecs to provide a little momentum going into next week’s game with Greenfield.

“We have a lot of things to work on,” said Carnazzo, the winningest football coach in county history. “Too many penalties. Our tackling needs to improve as well.”

Alisal 25, Alvarez 21: Despite having two 80-plus-yard touchdown runs called back by penalties, the Trojans didn’t lose their composure, using a touchdown run late in the game from Damian Gonzalez to rally past host Alvarez.

The win was a measure of redemption for Alisal, which was knocked out of the playoff picture in the final regular season game of the year last fall by the Eagles.

“It was a tough way to end last year,” Alisal coach Cesar Chaidez said. “That’s in the rearview mirror. These kids worked for this and earned it. We want to continue to build on what we did tonight. It’s about optimal situations.”

Gonzalez’s second touchdown run erased a two-point deficit, staking the Trojans to a four-point lead with 2:12 left in the game. An aggressive Alisal defense stopped the Eagles final drive to secure the win.

“We talked about being able to channel that inner fire in ourselves,” Chaidez said. “Many times we let the fire get to us last year and it burned us. We didn’t let the situation get away. We played hard-nosed football.”

Dating back to 2019, the Trojans have won five consecutive season openers. Their last three meetings with Alvarez have been decided by a total of 10 points.

A pair of touchdowns by Alvarez in the second half had given the Eagles a 21-13 lead before Gonzalez scored the first of his two touchdowns to get the Trojans back in the game.

A 13-yard touchdown run from quarterback Santiago Chaidez late in the second quarter put Alisal up 13-7 at the half. Francisco Estrada Jr. added a pair of first-half field goals.

“The players gave my coaching staff a round of applause at the end of the game,” Chaidez said. “The kids recognized the effort and dedication. It gave me goosebumps.”

Christopher 23, North County 13: Tri-champions of the Mount Hamilton Division last season, the Cougars held off two fourth-quarter drives to knock off North County in both team’s season opener in Gilroy.

Christopher, whicch moved out of the Pacific Coast Athletic League in 2022, went 9-2 overall last year, falling in the Central Coast Section Division I playoffs to Gabilan Division tri-champion Aptos.

The Condors, who were shutout 31-0 last fall by Christopher, where staring at a 23-0 first-half deficit before Ryan Ruiz was on the receiving end of a touchdown pass from A.J. Gomez late in the second quarter.

“I was having flashbacks to last year in the first half that here we go again,” North County coach Juan Cuevas said. “We had some negative energy. I told the kids at the half we’re a good football team. Act like it and get out of your own way.”

While some of North County’s offensive struggles were self-inflicted, it found itself facing a Cougars defense that gave up the least amount of points last year in the Mount Hamilton Division.

Yet, when Chris Rasmussen ran for a touchdown moments after he intercepted a pass, the Condors were within 10 points in the third quarter had had life.

“The only thing we changed was effort,” said Cuevas, whose defense held Christopher scoreless in the second half. “The energy was through the roof. I’ve been praying for this. We just dug ourselves too big of a hole.”

Creating a pair of turnovers in the first half grounded a pair of Christopher drives, as Nathan Xocua had an interception, while Francisco Calderon recovered a fumble on a punt in the first quarter.

Rasmussen, who ran for over 700 yards in half a season last year, was rewarded for his interception with a touchdown run late in the third quarter.

“I put him out there on defense for one play and he picks off a pass,” Cuevas said. “I’m sick of moral victories. But there are a lot of things to point us forward in a positive way.”

Seaside 21, Rancho San Juan 7: The Spartans defense rose to the occasion, shutting out an offense that had averaged 38 points a game last year.

“We competed hard,” said Rancho San Juan coach Troy Emrey, whose team opened last year with six straight wins. “Seaside competed like a championship program.”

On the heels of a record-breaking season for wins with eight, the Trailblazers only points came when Fabian Ceja intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown to temporally tie the game in the second quarter.

“We have a lot of things to clean up,” Seaside coach Al Avila said. “Our athleticism gave them a little trouble. Our offensive line got off the ball well. And the defense did a nice job.”

Seaside produced three rushing touchdowns, with Keon Ealey and Jamarie Vaughns both scoring touchdowns in the first half, while Andrew Beal blew through a hole 40 yards for a touchdown in the second half.”

“We need to be more efficient on look calls,” said Avila, whose Spartans host Marina next Friday. “We need to be more gap sound. Little things can become big things. We will show them film and iron it out.”


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