With their win over Hoopa Valley last week, St. Helena football advanced to the CIF North Coast Section Div. 5 quarterfinals for the first time since 2014. That year the Saints swept all the way to the section championship game where they fell 14-7 to Salesian College Prep.
This year’s Saints, the No. 7 seed, will have another shot at the Pride (6-4), the No. 2 seed in the section. St. Helena and Salesian were scheduled to square off in the section quarterfinal Saturday at 1 p.m. at Salesian High School in Richmond, but were forced to reschedule to due to air quality conditions stemming from the Camp Fire in Butte County.
The NCS said Saturday’s Division 5 playoff game between St. Helena and Salesian has been cancelled. It will be rescheduled for Monday, Nov. 12 at 1 p.m.
“They’re pretty good,” said St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell after practice on Monday. “They have a lot of athletes. … We’re going to have our work cut out for us for sure, but our kids are playing better and I like the upward trend we have in a lot of ways.”
While each team’s personnel is obviously different since the last time the Pride and the Saints faced four years ago, how Salesian operates is no mystery.
“Their program mirrors itself every year, it’s just different kids,” Farrell said. “Generally speaking, it’s the same offense with different kids, it’s the same defense with different kids; this year is no different.”
But just because they’re similar doesn’t mean they’ll be any easier to stop. Salesian is a bonafide two seed, finishing the season at 6-4 overall and 4-1 in the highly competitive Tri-County Rock league, second place behind 8-3 El Cerrito. Behind junior quarterback Ronald Robertson’s 34 touchdowns this year, the Pride average over 35 points per game and has scored at least 49 points in four games this season.
“It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before,” Farrell said. “All of our coaches have played against Salesian in one timeframe or another. … Nothing is new, in terms of scheme, but their players are very good and they’re difficult to deal with.”
Salesian has dominated the Div. 5 section playoffs for the better part of the last decade. They won back-to-back section titles in 2013 and 2014 and won four of five titles from 2010 to 2014. Since then, they finished in the quarterfinals in 2015 before jumping up to Div. 4 in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. In 2016, they made it to the semifinals before bowing out, and in 2017 they were obliterated by eventual section champ Fortuna in the first round.
This season is their return to Div. 5 and they’re trying to make it a triumphant one.
“I feel like we are certainly playing our best football at the best time of the year,” Salesian head coach Chad Nightingale told prep2prep.com last week. “We are young again this year, but we have really started to play well. A few of the positions where we thought we might be good, we actually turned out to be really good.”
Luckily for the Saints, they feel this way, too.
Their offense has found a groove since the Cloverdale game three weeks ago. With the addition of freshman call-up Ivan Robledo and a tweaked offensive system, St. Helena has averaged 426 rushing yards over its last three games. Robledo has led the charge in that regard with three stellar games since being called up from JV. He’s averaging 209 rushing yards per game and has scored 11 touchdowns.
Even St. Helena’s veterans credit Robledo with the Saints’ sudden surge.
“He’s been a huge addition to our team,” senior lineman Frank Lenney said on Monday. “Especially against Cloverdale, it was just that element of surprise. We had been running that single-back veer system the whole year and then we came out against Cloverdale with a whole new way of play with our overset and our two-back system; it just took them by surprise. That win made our attitude better which has helped us in further games.”
How the Saints’ running attack matches up with a strong and physical Salesian front line will be one of the biggest keys on Monday.
“I think we’re playing an opponent that will take that stuff away, or try to, but that just means we have to do our jobs better,” Farrell said. “It doesn’t mean we have to do anything drastically different, we just have to do our jobs better.”
Defensively, Farrell said his team needs to force turnovers, like it did against Hoopa Valley, and work to limit the chances Salesian’s offense gets on late down situations, something they didn’t do against Hoopa.
“I’d like to turn them over a couple of times and we’ve got to get off the field on defense,” he said. “When we get an opportunity to get off the field on defense we have to do that, and that means we might have to play four downs. They converted eight of nine fourth downs against us last week. We can’t do that, we can’t do that because they’ll just wear us down with their size and speed. We’ve got to get off the field whenever we get a chance and make plays.”
Farrell added that he’s noticed the Saints’ turnaround from earlier in the year. He just hopes that the upswing continues on Monday and beyond.
“At the beginning of the year, for instance, the kids are kind of feeling us out from last year, they’re not watching as much film as we probably would’ve liked at the beginning of the year, but somewhere in that middle of the season, they started watching film, they started believing that what we’re teaching, will be successful,” he said. “Then that Cloverdale game hit and something happened where we just kind of gelled. The kids are watching film, they’re energized at practice, they’re trying all the things we do, we added the JV players, we added the JV coaches, we added a wealth of knowledge in all those areas, and all of a sudden kids are getting coached every play instead of sporadically because we just have too many irons in the fire.
“I’m really excited about it, we’ll give it our best shot and see what it comes out to be.”