The Palma High football team continued its push for a second straight unbeaten league season and fourth in five years by holding off a stubborn Salinas High 31-21 Friday night at Salinas High.
The Chieftains not only won their fifth straight game after starting the year 0-3, but beat Salinas for the 19th time in the past 20 meetings, though this one fiercely contested from start to finish in front of a less than capacity crowd.
There were three lead changes in the first half and four through midway in the early third quarter.
Palma looked like it might start to pull away in the third quarter when James Meeks stuck out his arm and pulled in an interception while being no more than 15 feet from Salinas quarterback Zack McDermott and returned it 30 yards to give Palma a 24-14 lead.
Palma intercepted three passes in the game.
But Salinas came right back and marched 69 yards on nine plays — the last eight on the ground — to pull within 24-21 on a 1-yard run by Jeremiah Garcia with two minutes to play in the third quarter.
However, Palma answered with a 69-yard drive of its own, helped by a rare completion of 22 yards John Pezzini on a third-and-10 early in the march. The two teams combined to complete only eight passes.
Brandon Olivares took over from there. He was given the ball on six of the next seven plays and powered in from a yard out for his second touchdown of the game that gave the Chieftains a 31-21 lead with 9:21 to play.
It was just another night at the office for Palma’s senior running back who finished with 224 yards on 31 carries. He also became the school’s regular-season (playoff games not included) rushing record-holder by upping his season total to 1,338, topping the mark of 1,252 set by Jack Baird three years ago
Trailing by 10 with 6:12 left the Cowboys went on another drive from their own 31 to the Palma 22. But it ended with an interception by Joseph Coffelt and Palma was able to run out the clock.
As expected the game was fought almost exclusively on the ground. Jordan Torres rushed for 143 yards and his Salinas teammate, Elijah Kirkland, added another 102.
The Salinas passing game netted 11 yards on three-of-13 attempts.
The Cowboys drove 59 yards on their first possession of the game for a touchdown on Kirkland’s 7-yard run, only to see Dalton Dovolis return the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for the tying touchdown.
After Miguel Mendez kicked a 35-yard field goal to give Palma the lead late in the first quarter, Salinas put a marathon 69-yard, 15-play, seven-minute drive together for a 14-10 advantage midway through the second quarter. Torres scored on a seven-yard run.
The score stayed 14-10 at halftime.
Palma took the lead for good by scoring on its first drive of the third quarter, capped by a Olivares six-yard scoring run.
The loss was the third in a row for the Cowboys, who fell to 4-5 overall and 2-3 in the Monterey Bay League Gabilan Division.
After nine straight weeks without a break, Salinas has a bye next Friday before closing the regular season Nov. 15 at Alisal. A win in their season finale will likely put the Cowboys in the Central Coast Section playoffs for the sixth straight season, but they will probably be at the mercy of a point system based on strength of schedule to earn a berth as an at-large entry.
Giving Salinas a bit more reason to be optimistic about its post-season chances is the fact that Hollister reached the playoffs last year at 5-5 overall and 3-3 in league. The Balers went on to win the CCS Division I championship.
There will be no such worries for Palma — 5-3 overall and 4-0 in league — which will be a heavy favorite to win next week’s game at Monte Vista Christian before ending the regular season Nov. 15 with their annual shootout against Hollister.
Palma has reached the CCS playoffs every year since 1984, and after looking like that streak might be in jeopardy after its first three games, has been in playoff mode ever since.