LOWER LAKE – Where to begin?
St. Helena’s regular-season finale against the Trojans on the road was one for the ages – and the record books.
The Saints ran all over Lower Lake on a frigid Friday night at Gordon Sadler Field for a thrilling 54-39 win in a matchup of the two offensive heavyweights in the North Central League I. The tilt lived up to the billing, and then some.
Sophomore Ivan Robledo punctuated an already stellar campaign with his best performance yet, a 329-yard, six-touchdown night on 39 carries to cement himself in the St. Helena record books. His 329 yards are a single-season record and it’s the third time he’s set that record this season. He also passed Sebastian Segura (1,717 yards) for the top spot on the single-season rushing yards record with 1,809 and his six scores also brought him to a tie with Charles Bertoli for most rushing touchdowns in a season with 29.
What’s more, the Saints (8-2, 5-2 NCL I) ran for 460 yards as a team. That gave them 3,809 in 10 games this year, breaking the single-season team rushing record of 3,577 they set last season in 12 games.
Senior running back Cody DiTomaso, who had 66 yards on six carries and a 58-yard touchdown reception on Friday, has also passed the 1,000-yard mark this season and has over 2,300 career rushing yards, good for fourth all-time in school history.
All this is to say, Friday was a good night to be a Saint.
“That tells you how good our O-line has played,” said a beaming St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell. “It’s a team effort. We talk about how defense is an 11-man unit. Offense is the same thing.”
The Saints and Trojans each entered Friday’s NCL I finale as the two top scoring teams in league. The Saints spotted Lower Lake (7-3, 5-2 NCL I) a 16-0 lead early on in the first and never trailed in the contest. They led 24-7 after one thanks to touchdown runs of 36, 39 and 51 yards from Robledo.
“He’s special,” Farrell said of his prolific sophomore. “He’s just able to miss hard hits. He’s able to get himself going and falling forward.”
The Saints added to their lead with two more touchdowns in the second quarter, courtesy of a 5-yard run from Robledo and a 58-yard connection from quarterback Daniel Martinez to DiTomaso, a score that put the visitors squarely in the driver’s seat at 40-14 midway through the quarter.
But the pass-heavy Trojans and dynamic quarterback Vann Wilkins finally got things working in the second after a slow start in the first. After connecting with standout wide receiver Semaj Clark for a 40-yard score earlier in the quarter, Wilkins capitalized on a Martinez interception deep in Trojan territory.
With five seconds left before the half and Lower Lake at its own 35, Wilkins found Makhi Johnson for a 35-yard gain in what should have been the last play of the half had St. Helena not committed a personal foul penalty, advancing the ball all the way to Saints’ 15 and giving the Trojans one final shot at the endzone before half. Wilkins ran it and eventually launched himself across the goal line with zeroes on the clock, making what was headed for a blowout into a three-score game.
“Offensively, we were dang near flawless in the first half,” Farrell said. “I just wish we had that last drive back to maybe put the game really away at halftime because we had a chance to be up 48-14 and instead we went into the locker room up 40-21. Offensively, we could’ve had a little more sense of urgency at the end of the half but how can you complain when you score five out six times you touch the ball?”
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The Trojans further narrowed the deficit in the third quarter, scoring on their first possession to make it 40-27, but the Saints answered with a 9-play, 65-yard drive finished off by Robledo’s fifth score of the game, a one-yard run.
Robledo got his sixth at the start of the fourth to make it 54-33, but not even that lead felt safe against the Trojans, who entered Friday winners of five straight and had scored an average of 46 points per game over that span. They once again cut into the deficit with seven minutes left in the fourth and seemed poised to do so again after St. Helena fumbled the ball away in their own territory on the first play of their next possession.
But the bend-don’t-break philosophy held up down the stretch as the Saints forced a three-and-out in their own redzone to regain possession with six minutes left. A flurry of rushing plays ate up enough yards and time to send the Saints home with their third straight victory and into the playoffs playing arguably their best football of the year.
“Momentum-wise, I think it’s great because this was a really good offensive team and they’ve been playing really, really well the last few weeks,” Farrell said. “I think this is a good win. I knew we were going to give up a few points but I felt like we played a lot better defensively than the scoreboard ended up being.”
While it was a night full of highs, one low point did stick out. Senior wide receiver and cornerback Jacob Lehman, a team captain and leaders on the team, broke his collar bone in the first half and will miss the rest of the season.
“That’s really unfortunate that that happened but we had survived all season and sometimes the luck doesn’t hold out for the whole season,” Farrell said. “I feel bad about Jake’s injury but proud for the kids. They came through.”
As for now being a member of St. Helena’s football elite, how did Robledo feel about his numerous records he set on Friday?
“It feels pretty good but I don’t really care about records,” he said. “I just want to win championships.”
North Coast Section playoffs begin two weeks from Friday night, and the Saints are now all but guaranteed to host at least one postseason game. They’ll find out their draw and first-round opponent after the NCS seeding meeting on Nov. 10.
St. Helena JV 52, Lower Lake 0
The Saints wrapped up another successful season under head coach Ian MacMillan, finishing out the slate with another blowout victory to finish the year 9-1 overall.
“The kids worked really hard,” MacMillan said. “Super impressive. It was fun every day to be out there with them. The great thing is I’ve been doing this a long time and this year we decided as a coaching staff the JV and the varsity were going to practice together as one unit and they took that on. Not many JV teams are able to play against a varsity unit and survive and hold their own for 11 weeks basically, 12 weeks in pads, so that was super impressive with this group.
“Couldn’t be more proud of them. They embraced everything and ran with it. They were just a really fun group and a hard-working group. They should be really proud of what they accomplished.”