It couldn’t have started worse for Hunter Barnhart.
The Paso Robles High School quarterback fell back to pass on the Bearcats’ first possession Friday night against Arroyo Grande when disaster struck. He felt the rush from Arroyo Grande senior defensive end Tyler Valenti, but wasn’t able to elude him, and the impact of the hit knocked the ball from Barnhart’s hand. Arroyo Grande fell on it close to the end zone. But the Paso Robles defense held strong, and Arroyo Grande missed a field goal a few plays later.
Suddenly, Barnhart had a restart.
With the ball back in his hands, Barnhart proceeded to lead Paso Robles on an 80-yard drive, making three key third-down passes on the way to a touchdown drive. He would only get better from there.
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“We looked past it,” Barnhart said after the game of the fumble. “Everybody makes mistakes, but we are going to go back out there and put a seven on the board.”
With the help of a stout defense, Barnhart put a couple of sevens on the board as Paso Robles rolled to a 28-7 win over Arroyo Grande in the teams’ PAC 5 opener.
“We talked all preseason about how we want to be rising by the time we hit this game, and they rose as one tonight,” Paso Robles interm head coach J.R. Reynolds said.
Barnhart finished the first half 8 of 11 for 108 yards and a touchdown through the air, which included a perfectly placed 46-yard touchdown pass to Daede Murphy. It’s the same strong right arm that drew the attention of the Arizona State baseball team and earned a scholarship offer last month.
He also showed off his speed with a spinning 62-yard touchdown run that put Paso Robles up 21-7 at halftime. Barnhart started the season as the junior varsity quarterback but was pulled up in the third game of the season and led Paso Robles to its first win of the year over Clovis North.
After the first half, Barnhart was quiet and the Paso Robles defense and running backs would take over.
The Paso Robles defense was able to stop Arroyo Grande junior running back James Gilmet in his tracks. The top rusher in the PAC 5 and the cornerstone of the Eagles’ offense was held to just 47 yards on 17 carries. Gilmet was averaging more than 150 yards in his past three games.
“The goal was to make someone else beat us,” Reynolds said. “I think they did a heck of a job.”
Arroyo Grande junior quarterback Kadin Byrne was harassed all night by the Bearcats defensive line and sacked four times. Paso Robles junior defensive lineman James Doran had a tackle for a loss and a sack in the game.
“It means the world to win this game,” senior defensive end Isiah Espinoza said. “After all the controversy we have been going through this season, we knew we were a good team. People were saying we weren’t a good team, people were doubting us from the beginning since our loss against Lemoore, since the grand conspiracy. We are just so hyped because we know we can do this every night.”
With Barnhart rolling and the defense playing well, the Paso Robles running backs helped control the clock and punish the Arroyo Grande defense. Senior running back Julian Madrigal did his work between the 20s, while junior Nathan Garica played the role of goal-line bruiser. Madrigal had 21 carries for 100 yards, while Garcia had seven carries for 46 yards and two touchdowns.
“On the offensive side of the ball, that was the most we scored all year, so shoot,” Reynolds said.
With the win, Paso Robles (2-4, 1-0 PAC 5) takes early control in the PAC 5 and becomes the favorites to win the league title. Paso Robles will take on SLO High next week. Arroyo Grande (4-3, 0-1 PAC 5) will have to regroup, try to win out and hope Paso Robles loses a league game if it wants to claim at least a share of the league title. The Eagles have a bye next week before playing Righetti in two weeks.