HUGHSON – The Hughson High Huskies, the last team still on the field in the 209, ended their season Saturday night with a traditional funnel and the recognition of 23 hard-working seniors who changed it all.
They fell short of their goals in a 31-21 loss to Palma of Salinas in the CIF Northern California 4-A title game. Disappointment was the order of the moment, and there was no time for perspective.
But later, this also will sink in: Hughson (10-4) completed arguably the most decorated two-year run in the school’s football history. Other varsity teams may have won more games over two seasons, but none took home such hardware: Back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI titles and, of course, the CIF 5-AA state championship in 2022.
“They (the seniors) laid the groundwork for Hughson football for years to come,” Hughson coach Shaun King said. “I’m so proud.”
The Huskies acquitted themselves better than good against Palma, but not good enough against an opponent that didn’t commit a turnover and – taking away the game-ending kneeldowns—scored on its last four possessions.
The game’s difference-maker turned out to be a freshman who played his first tackle football game barely a month ago. Tailback Eli Dukes, a mid-season addition, fueled the Palma attack by rushing 24 times for 172 yards and two second-half touchdowns.
Pounding inside the tackles for most of his yards, Dukes worked effectively in traffic and often wrong-footed the Hughson pursuit. His 30-yard rip around the left side put the Chieftains ahead to stay 21-14 in the third quarter.
Coach Jeff Carnazzo has called the 165-pound Dukes the player who turned around the Palma season. The program self-reported the usage of an ineligible player and forfeited its first three wins, hence its official record is 7-7 and not 10-4.
But Hughson saw first-hand why Palma—the all-boys private school (it goes coed next year) and Central Coast Section powerhouse – recovered to annex its first NorCal title. The Chieftains will meet Mission Oak of Tulare, a 29-14 victor over Rio Hondo Prep, for the 4-A title next week.
“After my first (career) carry, I knew I could play with these guys,” Dukes said. “The offensive line was amazing. I ran through the holes they gave me.”
Most of Dukes’ yardage happened after halftime as Palma asserted itself. Quarterback Thomas Nunes, who rushed for two touchdowns, provided the balance by completing 10 of 12 passes for 107 yards, including four receptions by Notre Dame commit Logan Saldate.
In hindsight, Dukes and Nunes provided the kind of efficiency that is rare for any team, much less one far from home. That’s a tip of the cap to Hughson, which still led twice and never lost hope until the final minutes.
The Huskies jumped ahead 14-7 on the second of Robert McDaniel’s two touchdown passes, a 10-yarder to Malakai Sumter. The junior, despite his defender positioned in front of him, high-pointed the pass and clutched if off the top of the DB’s helmet.
Palma answered with an important drive which ended with a bold stroke. Out of timeouts with 9 seconds left in the half and the ball at the 1, Nunes sneaked the ball into the end zone to draw even 14-14. Had Nunes fallen short, time would have run out.
“I had a lot of confidence in the sneak,” Dukes said.
Hughson technically did not commit a turnover, but a costly error proved just as lethal. Already trailing 21-14 in the third quarter and preparing to punt, the Huskies botched an attempted fake. The bobbled short snap fizzled. Palma took over at the Hughson 34 yard line, preceding a short field goal by Gio Gutierrez for a 24-14 lead.
“Our players audibled into that (fake punt), but we didn’t know (the short snap) was coming up,” King said. “It was a mistake.”
Hughson kept a loud overflow crowd at Husky Memorial Stadium on edge with a suitable response—an 88-yard drive in six plays. Running back Alexander Villarreal (15 carries, 125 yards), angled to his right, stuck his right foot into the turf and pivoted 39 yards for the touchdown that kept the home team within a TD.
Villarreal finished his senior season with more than 1,400 yards and 19 touchdowns.
“Palma was a really good team. We knew they played Hilmar last year (a 7-6 Palma win),” Villarreal said. The ball just didn’t bounce our way, but what else can you say? It’s a football game.”
The Chieftains, their lead cut to 24-21, rattled off four first downs. Dukes carried eight times in the 13-play march and finished it from five yards out with 2:55 left. The Hughson defense, stubborn for most of the first half, could not stop Palma after the break.
The numbers reflected the outcome. Palma outgained Hughson 334-242. Larkin Meyer, a senior, caught eight of McDaniel's passes, one for the Huskies' first touchdown.
“The main thing is winning State last year. Our expectations were State again,” said McDaniel (14 of 21, 125 yards, 2 TDs), a junior who will return for one more run. “The seniors really brought Hughson football back. We didn’t pay it forward all the way.”
But what was paid was sweet.
H—Larkin Meyer 9 pass from Robert McDaniel (Ernie Mendoza kick)
P—Thomas Nunes 10 run (Gio Gutierrez kick)
H—Malakai Sumter 10 pass from McDaniel (Mendoza kick)
P—Nunes 1 run (Gutierrez kick)
P—Eli Dukes 30 run (Gutierrez kick)
P—FG Gutierrez 22
H—Alexander Villarreal 39 run (Mendoza kick)
P—Dukes 5 run (Gutierrez kick)
Records—Palma 7-7, Hughson 10-4