There’s one St. Helena football team still practicing, and it’s the Carpy Gang varsity squad.
On Saturday, the undefeated youth gridders have a chance to win a Mendo-Lake Empire Junior Football League (MLEJFL) championship for the second straight season. The Gang plays the West Shore Cardinals of Lakeport at 4 p.m. on a neutral site, at Lower Lake High School.
They won it last year after the Kelseyville Chiefs unexpectedly forfeited the contest and St. Helena was dubbed the champion in its first year in the new league. This time, they have a chance to earn it on the field outright.
“First week of practice, it was our goal – to play hard, play the Carpy Gang brand of football,” said head coach Joe Herdell at practice Tuesday. “Along with knocking somebody down it’s helping them back up right after that happens. Right from the start we’ve had lofty goals set, and they’ve hit just about every single one of them, and the last one is winning the championship game.”
St. Helena is a perfect 10-0 and, if they can pull off the win, it’ll be the first time in the program’s 81 years of existence that a team has won 11 games in a single season. It’ll also be the first time they’ve earned a title by winning a championship game.
“The key for us has been just not really slacking out there at practice and taking everything seriously and going 100 percent on everything,” said tight end-defensive end Jorge Gonzalez. “For us 8th graders especially, just going out there on the field and leaving our mark is kind of what we’re trying to do.”
The Gang, winners of the MLEJFL South Division, has beaten the opposition by an average of 19 points per game in the eight games played. Sonoma Valley didn’t field a team this season, which resulted in two free wins.
Herdell described the group as both athletic and coachable. The players are receptive to new concepts and rarely get distracted from the task at-hand.
Although the lopsided victories have made this group confident – and rightfully so – the coaching staff has made sure they never let their egos get too big.
“You could see it, getting later in the season there was a little cockiness floating around,” Herdell said. “As coaches, you don’t want to squash that completely. They deserve it. But at the same time you don’t want to go into the next matchup on your heels because someone will take advantage of that. I think the coaches have done a decent job of grounding the kids, keeping them centered, keeping them focused and, again, they’ve done their part to match that … and not take for granted the games we’ve had.”
Having large leads has been a blessing in some ways, giving the second unit a chance to see extended action more often than not. That bodes well for whenever the team gets tested with injuries, which was the case when leading rusher Ivan Robledo was banged up in the middle of the year, for example. The coaching staff preaches “next guy up” in those situations, and the Gang has met the challenge every time.
“That’s something you don’t really see a lot in this Carpy Gang. It’s usually just starters stay on and second strings are not even known,” Gonzalez said. “But this season what we like is that everybody gets to play … because us starters, we go out there and we give it all we got. We put a little chip on the shoulder of the other team, and then let the second strings come in and finish it off. It’s good that we all get some playing time because it gets the young ones coming up next year more experience of what it’s like to be on varsity, what to look for and what to expect.”
The Gang has been defined by its stifling defense, coached by Sebastian Segura. Before last Saturday’s tilt against West Shore (9-1), a Week 7 makeup because of the wildfires, St. Helena’s first-team defense had gone the entire season without surrendering a touchdown.
Even though that streak was busted by the North Division champs, it didn’t take away from Segura’s efforts, coaching up a disciplined group that sends multiple hats to the ball on every play.
“He’s taken the defensive head coach role and put in a lot of effort teaching these kids responsibilities, formations and what to do in certain situations,” Herdell said. “Again, it goes back to these kids being coachable. They’ll listen, they absorb it and they shut it down (on game day).”
On offense, the success starts with the offensive line, led by three-year starter Cal Lehman at center, who Herdell described as “the core” of the unit. The guards are Orlando Segura and David Otero, the only starting 7th grader on that side of the ball. The tackles are Justin Maldonado and Henry Dixon.
“You need to have five … six guys up front that can move people around for you, and (they have) done a real good job of that,” Herdell said.
Leading the rushing attack has been Robledo, who “is just all power,” Herdell said. “It takes a few guys to bring him down.” Elguin Flores has brought the quickness, providing a change-of-pace out of the backfield.
At quarterback is Spencer Printz. Herdell said the signal-caller sits up front when they’re studying film, and wants to “take his game to the next level.”
“It’s a tough (job), but it’s fun,” Printz said. “It’s really fun.”
When the North Bay Fires engulfed Wine Country, Carpy Gang, like all athletic endeavors, faced an extended shutdown until air quality became safe and roads reopened.
The MLEJFL was able to adjust its schedule and extend the season an extra week to allow each team to play all its games. And even though St. Helena had a short week of practice when it resumed its schedule on Oct. 21 against Lower Lake, the Gang’s intensity never wavered.
“We just worked even harder after the fires,” Printz said. “We had some tough practices, and that just pushed us through.”
Now they have a chance to cap a strong year with a finish it deserves. They just have to do what they’ve been doing all season one last time.