The first offensive play for the Carpy Gang varsity team in Saturday’s Mendo-Lake Empire Junior Football League (MLEJFL) championship was a huge touchdown run.
But it got called back on a holding call. In fact, two more TDs were called back on holding calls.
On a night where the factors were stacked against St. Helena’s eldest youth football team, the players pushed through thanks to the championship pedigree they’ve developed the past few years and beat the North Division champion West Shore Cardinals 18-0.
With the win, Carpy Gang completed a perfect 11-0 season, and became the first team in the program’s 81 years to win 11 games as well as a championship by beating an opponent in a head-to-head postseason finale. It was also their second straight title since joining the MLEJFL last year, although last season they earned it without playing a down due to a Kelseyville Chiefs’ forfeit.
“We played and coached one game at a time,” said the Gang’s head coach Joe Herdell. “We set lofty goals at the beginning of the season but we always made sure the kids were grounded enough to take every game seriously, and they did. They really stepped up every single time. And the reaction (after the final whistle) was incredible. The kids were absolutely fired up for that clock to tick down and us to get the championship.”
The conditions were far from ideal. The varsity game was the third of three MLEJFL championships played at Lower Lake High School Saturday and was on a grass field that had been softened up by rains earlier in the week.
As temperatures dipped as the day wore on, both teams saw their effective running games lose steam in the biggest night of the year. Offensive linemen struggled to get their footing, and running backs rarely gained enough speed to reach the edge. Herdell described it as “one of those true, late-season, getting-close-to-winter games.”
But the Gang never wavered.
“None of the kids hung their heads when penalties were called or whatever,” said Herdell. “We’ve dealt with that before and you’ve got to push forward and do what you’ve practiced and move forward. ‘Turn the page’ was a very common theme that we had this year with our players. If they made a mistake, coaches told them, ‘Turn the page. You’ve got to look past it and get on to the next play.’”
The only scoring play of the first half came on an instinctual call from do-it-all RB/LB/K Ivan Robledo. The power-runner saw an opening on a punt, took a chance, and was rewarded with a 70-yard scoring scamper for six points.
“It was an improvisation,” Herdell said. “He saw that he had that whole side of the field empty; only had to beat one guy.”
The Gang’s defense was stifling, led by the downhill efforts of the team’s front seven, which thrived in the adverse conditions. They held the Cardinals to 76 total yards, forced five punts, and were paced by lineman David Otero, who had two sacks, and defensive end Orlando Segura’s multiple stops in the backfield. Herdell also highlighted middle linebacker Clayton Crean, who helped plug up any run attempts in the middle.
St. Helena also had two first-half interceptions by Jackson Corley and Justin Maldonado.
“Really the game came down to which team’s line work was better on both offense and defense,” Herdell said, “and our defensive line played incredibly well in those conditions.”
Despite three fumbles, Carpy Gang continued to plow forward in the second half, and saw their work rewarded with a 45-yard TD run by Robledo and a 20-yard scoring run from speedster Elguin Flores.
The offense gained 212 yards in the season finale.
The coaches, joined by Herdell on this year’s staff, were Sebastian Segura, Joe Crean, Brian Printz, and Brett Ronayne.
“This group of kids, they’re extremely athletic and they take instruction very well. They’re there to play,” Herdell said. “They have a drive – these 7th and 8th graders – they have a drive that you can’t teach. Some teams, some groups have it and some groups don’t. This group definitely does, and they play well together.
“We didn’t have any quarrels amongst the teammates … there was no dissent in the ranks,” the coach continued. “People knew what to do, and we wanted this group of 8th graders to coach up the 7th graders so we could continue this program, this streak, this run that we’re on. Hats off to every single one of the players for sticking it out.”