MIDDLETOWN — It is hard to beat the Middletown High football team when the Mustangs hit big plays, as the hosts did in a 34-7 North Central League I win over St. Helena on Friday evening.
“They went to a lot of oversets (formations) and it’s something that Bill (Foltmer, Mustangs head coach) is really good at,” St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell said. “He finds what is going to be successful each week and he sticks to it. They just did a better job than what we did as coaches today.”
The wind was howling all game at Bill Foltmer Field and its namesake’s squad came out ready to play.
The Saints’ first drive didn’t last long, and the Mustangs (5-2, 3-1 NCL I) started with good field position. St. Helena’s defense made two quick stops, but it was on third down that Middletown struck its first major blow. Mustangs quarterback R.H. Hess dropped back and connected with Nico Barrio on a 40-yard completion to the Saints’ 4-yard line. Shortly after, Drake Harbison powered his way in from 3 yards out.
St. Helena (4-3, 2-2 NCL I) kept fighting, but was unable to fun much success from its running game. Daniel Martinez continued to improve under center, as the sophomore signal caller had a team-high 78 rushing yards on 13 carries for the game.
The Saints’ second drive resulted in another punt, a booming blast from Luis Robledo. The Mustangs went back to work, grinding out a 15-play drive. But the Saints’ defense stood tall in the red zone, as Bryer Scott snagged a Hess pass out of the air for an interception.
The Middletown defense continued to put a stop to the Saints’ running game – the Mustangs held star running back Cody DiTomaso to 48 rushing yards on 16 carries – and forced them to punt again. Middletown answered a minute before halftime when Hess connected with Harbison on a back-breaking 52-yard touchdown pass.
“We thought we had something good going with the inside running game and, unfortunately, I think we just didn’t set up the kids to be as dynamic as they could have been,” Farrell said. “The first half was a little bit of a waste offensively, in terms of moving the football and threatening.”
The St. Helena defense kept the Mustangs in check on their first drive after the break. On the second play of the Saints’ ensuing drive, Martinez took a keeper up the middle and got stuck in a massive scrum. After a few seconds, Middletown defensive tackle Jared Pyzer was rushing down the field in the opposite direction for a 45-yard touchdown on a fumble return. The football never hit the ground, as the junior was able to snag the ball and keep running in one swift motion. The extra-point attempt was blocked by a hand from the defensive line, leaving the score 20-0.
The big plays never stopped for the Mustangs, however, as Harbison continued his strong performance. The tailback found a seam around the left side of the offensive line and bolted for a 48-yard touchdown. The senior finished with a game-high 136 yards on 16 carries.
“It is a humbling experience sometimes,” Farrell said, “when you think you are making strides and doing some really good things in practice and then you realize you are still young and have a ways to go to get back into the top tier again. It isn’t because of a lack of effort or lack of fight. We just have some growing to do. We just aren’t ready to beat these upper-division teams. We can make every excuse in the book, but we just have to get better.”
The Saints were able to notch some points on the board at the beginning of the fourth quarter, as Martinez led a drive down the field and capped it with a 10-yard quarterback sneak up the middle.
But Harbison responded with his last large gain of the evening, a 32-yard rush, and scored his third touchdown of the game two plays later.
St. Helena will welcome always tough Fort Bragg (3-4, 2-2 NCL I) next week.
“We have this team for at least three more regular-season games and hopefully more after that,” Farrell said. “This has been a fun group to coach this season.”