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Huskies fall short of state title repeat
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Hughson's Larkin Meyer tries to break free from Palma's Matthew Garcia during Saturday's Northern California 4A title game at Hughson High School (SAMANTHA SCHMIDT/The Journal).

HUGHSON — Hughson High senior Ryan Borrelli stood at the center of a nearly empty Husky Memorial Stadium following the Huskies’ 31-21 loss to Palma (Salinas) in the CIF Northern California 4-A regional bowl game.

Hughson’s season, and Borrelli’s prep career, had abruptly come to a conclusion just minutes before.

“This one’s gonna hurt forever,” said Borrelli, his face still glazed with sweat.

With that, Borrelli closed his eyes and leaned his head back, as if searching for answers behind his eyelids. 

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Hughson head coach Shaun King holds onto the NorCal runner-up plaque while hugging defensive lineman Ivan Flores after Saturday's Northern California 4A title game at Hughson High School (SAMANTHA SCHMIDT/The Journal).

Palma turned in a virtually flawless performance Saturday in officially ending Hughson’s reign as a state champion.

The back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section Division 6 champions were playing for a shot at another state title, but the Chieftains snatched that away.

“They were the defending state champions and we know why,” said Palma coach Jeff Carnazzo. “They have incredible fans and this was an incredible atmosphere.”

Still, the Huskies (10-4) completed a two-year run unlike any other in school history.

“(The seniors) laid the groundwork for Hughson football for years to come,” said Hughson coach Shaun King, who guided his team to consecutive section crowns, as well as NorCal and state titles in 2022. “I’m so proud.”

Make no mistake: The Huskies turned in a performance that on most nights would’ve been more than enough to defeat an elite program.

Quite simply, Palma played better.

“Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap to the other team,” said King.

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Hughson's Alexander Villarreal finds a hole and runs right up the middle during Saturday's Northern California 4A title game at Hughson High School (SAMANTHA SCHMIDT/The Journal).

There was a lot of cap-tipping in the direction of Palma tailback Eli Dukes, who finished the game with 174 yards on 23 carries.

A freshman, the 5-10, 165-pound Dukes had never played tackle football before this season and was a member of the freshman squad — not the junior varsity squad — just a few weeks ago. He joined the starting lineup in October and the Chieftains’ season took off.

Dukes gained 140 yards of his total on 17 second-half carries, and his 30-yard dash around the left end put Palma ahead 21-14 to start the third quarter.

“After my first (varsity) carry, I kinda knew I could play with these guys,” Dukes said, who turned 15 on Oct. 31. “In the first half, I didn’t know what to expect. Hughson has a big defensive line. But we made some adjustments and the offensive line did an amazing job.”

Hughson took a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening drive when junior quarterback Robert McDaniel hit senior Larkin Meyer from the 9, but the Chieftains tied it up on their first possession when quarterback Thomas Nunes ran it in from the 10.

The Huskies reclaimed the lead when McDaniel hit Malakai Sumter from 10 yards out. The 6-foot-3 junior was well-defended in the corner of the end zone, but he high-pointed the ball and plucked it right off the defender’s helmet.

Palma held serve on its next possession when Thomas Nunes scored on a quarterback sneak with 9 seconds left in the half. Had Hughson stopped Nunes, Palma, with no timeouts left, would’ve been unable to line up and make another attempt at paydirt.

“I liked the front they were in,” said Nunes, who completed 10 of 12 passes for 112 yards in the contest, while running 11 times for 61 yards. “There was nobody over our center, and we got a got a good push.”

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Hughson's Malaki Sumter drags a Palma defender into the endzone to score during Saturday's Northern California 4A title game at Hughson High School (SAMANTHA SCHMIDT/The Journal).

After Dukes made it 21-14 with 7:07 remaining in the third quarter, Hughson went three-and-out and set up to punt on its own 39.

But a fake kick was snuffed out and the Chieftains took over on the Huskies’ 34.

The miscue led to a 22-yard field goal by Gio Gutierrez, making it a two-score game at 24-14.

“Our players audibled into that fake punt; we didn’t know the short snap was coming up,” King said. “It was a mistake.”

Hughson answered, capping a six-play, 88-yard march on Alex Villarreal’s 39-yard jaunt, and the Heart Attack Huskies’ season still had a pulse.

But the defense had no answer for Dukes.

After Villarreal’s TD, Palma took over with 11:19 remaining in the game. Nearly eight and a half minutes later, Dukes scored on a 5-yard burst to make it 31-21 with 2:55 to play. 

On Palma’s final two possessions of the game, Dukes gained 52 yards on nine carries, scoring the clinching TD and picking up three key first downs along the way.

“I didn’t expect them to be as physical as they were,” said Hughson middle linebacker David Burns. “He (Dukes) cut back really well and he was extremely agile.”

Dukes’ performance was ever more important given that Larkin — with help at times from Sumter held Notre Dame-bound receiver Logan Saldate to just four receptions for 48 yards.

Palma, now 7-7 officially (the Chieftains had to forfeit three games for using an ineligible player), will face Tulare’s Mission Oak (10-5) for the 4-A title on Saturday.