The St. Helena football team is once again heading to the North Coast Section playoffs.
The Saints (8-2) were named the No. 4 seed and will hosts No. 5 seed St. Vincent (9-1) in the first round at Bob Patterson Memorial Field on Friday at 7 p.m.
Here’s what you need to know about the matchup.
Most recent games: St. Vincent last played Oct. 26, when it finished its regular season with a 51-44 win over California School for the Deaf. On Nov. 1, St. Helena won its North Central League I finale at Lower Lake, 54-39.
Last meeting: St. Helena shut out the Mustangs, 41-0, in 2017 when the teams played in the same league. The Saints have won the last eight meeting between the two.
New look for familiar foe: The Saints and Mustangs are no strangers to each other. They squared off every season from 2005 through 2017, including as NCL I South foes from 2005 to 2010. St. Vincent has bounced around between leagues since 2010, even rejoining the NCL I in 2016 and 2017. But the Mustangs have played as an independent team, not in any league, since 2018.
Guiding them these last two seasons has been former Casa Grande head coach Trent Herzog, who has a 15-6 overall record at St. Vincent since taking over for longtime coach Gary Galloway. The Saints have never faced the Mustangs with Herzog at the helm.
“He’s done a really good job of changing the program to what he’s wanted to implement and you can tell watching film on their sideline there’s a ton of energy in their program, so it’ll be a little bit different than what it’s been in the past,” said St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell, who has an 8-2 lifetime record against the Mustangs. “We have a lot of history playing those guys, but that doesn’t matter much because none of those same guys are on this team.”
Scouting the ’Stangs: St. Vincent deploys diverse schemes and sets on both sides of the ball, according to Farrell. On offense, sophomore quarterback Jacob Porteus has completed 80 of 145 pass attempts this year (55 percent) for 1,352 yards and 17 touchdowns with 3 interceptions. His favorite targets are sophomore Dante Antonini (9 receptions, 132 yards, 4 touchdowns), senior Andrew Kohler (21 receptions, 377 yards, 3 touchdowns), junior Jeremy Bukolsky (22 receptions, 394 yards, 6 touchdowns), and 6-foot-7 senior Rory Morgan (14 receptions, 275 yards, 4 touchdowns).
The Mustangs also possess a formidable running attack, spearheaded by freshman sensation Kai Hall, who has 1,667 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns this season. Kohler also provides a secondary look on the ground and has 312 rushing yards with 8 touchdowns.
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“They are a little more diverse than we are in terms of run-pass, and they certainly are more diverse in terms of formations and sets that they run,” Farrell said. “That poses a real challenge right away.”
Defensively, the Mustangs have held opponents to just 13 points per game and have an average margin of victory of 28 points. As a team they have 44 sacks, 13 interceptions and have recovered six of the nine fumbles they’ve forced.
“Just as much as they do things differently offensively, they will change up their defense,” Farrell said. “I expect them to change up their defenses quite a bit within each series. That gave us a lot of problems against Willits when they did that, and we’ve got to handle that a lot better than we did against them.”
The one knock on the Mustangs would be their strength of schedule. Out of the eight teams that are in the Division 7 playoffs, only California School for the Deaf has a worse rating, per MaxPreps’ metrics.
St. Helena and St. Vincent did share two common opponents this season in Cloverdale and Willits. The Mustangs lost 27-0 to the Wolverines while the Saints narrowly fell 30-28. The Mustangs also beat the Eagles 28-7, while the Saints handled them 47-0. Take that as you will.
Strength of schedule and overall records aside, these are the playoffs and each team is 0-0, as Farrell likes to say.
“They’ve done a great job and they’re 9-1 for a reason,” he said. “A lot of times it doesn’t matter who you play. You just get a winning attitude and you play solid football and put yourself in a good position to win and that carries over from week to week.”
Rest vs. rust: The extension of the NCS football season gave St. Helena an added bye week between its regular-season finale and playoff opener. Since the Saints just learned Sunday of their first-round foe, the extra week off was spent healing bumps and bruises and fighting off a cold bug that made the rounds rather than prepping for a still unknown opponent.
“I’m pretty glad we didn’t play, to be honest,” Farrell said of the extra week off.
St. Helena was also able to get its JV call-ups more acclimated to the varsity level. It wasn’t a long process, since the varsity team has been practicing against the JV all season. The Saints will enter Friday much healthier and more prepared than they were last week, ready to rock and roll.