In its first three games, the St. Helena High football team has attempted only 10 passes, yet the Saints still boast one of the most explosive offenses in the Napa Valley.
Behind a brutal, balanced and relentless rushing attack, the Saints are scoring nearly 50 points per game and have rushed out to a 3-0 start.
They opened their season with 46-27 win over St. Patrick-St. Vincent thanks to 477 yards on the ground, and then followed that up with a thorough handling of Drake, 52-0, in which they amassed 299 rushing yards.
They finished off their nonleague schedule by rushing for 426 yards in a 44-30 win over Winters, and entered their bye week with sky-high confidence ahead of their league opener against Kelseyville (1-2) a week from Friday.
To anyone who has watched St. Helena play this season or last, what the Saints have accomplished so far should come as no surprise. They deploy a devastating veer offense, captained by junior quarterback Daniel Martinez and spearheaded by sophomore running back Ivan Robledo and senior running back Cody DiTomaso, that has only gotten better as time has gone on.
Before having their season ended by Salesian in the second round of the Div. 6 North Coast Section playoffs last year, the Saints broke off a four-game win streak and have picked up this season where they left off.
As a team, the Saints so far have accumulated 1,202 rushing yards, an average of about 400 per game. Robledo has accounted for 452 of those, with five touchdowns. DiTomaso is second on the team with 391 rushing yards but first in touchdowns with seven, while Martinez has 195 yards on 38 carries with one touchdown.
That’s three players combining for 86 percent of the team’s rushing offense. What’s more, they’re doing it against teams geared to stop the run. The book has been out on St. Helena since last season when its offense revolved around similar trends, albeit with less explosive results.
Despite knowing the Saints are going to run, opponents can’t seem to stop them.
“That was one of my concerns going into the season, but right now it looks like we’re holding our own in that scenario,” said St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell. “We’re facing teams that have 10 guys within 7 yards of the ball and they’re flying up on things we’re doing and we’re still able to ground out some chunks.”
Farrell and the Saints realize this is probably unsustainable. Defenses will catch up to what they’re doing eventually, so they’ve been working to install more dimensions to their offense in practice. But the Saints’ balance in their rushing game has been the only counter they’ve needed so far.
“I do believe from what I’ve seen in the three games that if teams do try and overplay one particular option, we do have enough to fight back even against a 10-man front,” Farrell said.
Not be overlooked in their success is the play of the offensive line, coached in part by Ian MacMillan. He’s been running some variation of the veer for the last 15 years of his coaching career and has helped install a version with the Saints that has worked like gangbusters so far.
“Right now I’d say it’s just as good as I’d ever seen it. It’s just hitting on all cylinders,” said MacMillan, who also serves as the head JV coach. “The kids understand their assignments and it’s going in the right direction. It’s very explosive.”
It helps that the Saints have a veteran offensive line that has fully bought into the system. Their numbers were down entering the year, but linemen Ryland Campos, Rowan Desmond, Rowan Knight, Conlan Harrington and Orlando Segura have more than made up for that with their fierce play up front.
“What I like about the kids is that they’re willing to fight and do whatever it is that the team needs,” Farrell said. “They’ve made great adjustments, they’re very intelligent, they talk to each other, they challenge each other. You add George (Cutting) and Henry (Dixon), who have blocked really well from the two tight end spots, and we have quite a few kids that just like to fight on the line of scrimmage. It’s just really a fun thing to watch.
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“You always get teams’ bests at the start of the game. But our kids have shown, over the course of two of the three games, that they’re going to fight till the final buzzer. So you better come ready to fight the whole time. Not only do you have to fight the line of scrimmage every single time, but then you have to tackle a kid like Ivan, a kid like Cody, and then if you miss on those guys or do something different, Daniel is as tough as they come.”
Campos, one of the team captains, said that the team is “way ahead” of where he thought it would be through nonleague play. But he said he’s not surprised because of the work the Saints put in during the offseason.
“This summer we just worked really hard in getting off the ball,” he said. “We’re faster than I’ve ever seen us be. Hitting those defensive linemen and getting those blocks hasn’t been easy, but we’ve been really good at it.”
That speed on the line has allowed the Saints to hit their blocks quicker, opening up more opportunities for their dangerous backs.
“Me and Ivan can’t do much without the line,” DiTomaso said.
Martinez echoed the same thought.
“Nothing is possible without them,” he said.
For those unfamiliar, the veer works through deception and reads. Martinez handles the snap, then runs almost in unison with one of his backs before making a decision based on how the defense is attacking the ball. He can either keep it himself or finish off the handoff. When run correctly, it can make defense looks silly, evident enough by the nine rushing touchdowns the Saint have of 25 yards or more this season.
But it also isn’t the easiest offense to learn or execute, and can leave a team more susceptible to turnovers. So far, that’s been one of the main areas the Saints’ coaching staff wants to shore up.
St. Helena committed two costly fumbles against Winters last week that helped the Warriors get back into the game. The Saints know it comes with the territory of how they operate. They recognize that, while they’ve been successful early on, they still have a long way to go this fall.
“Coaching the veer is more of like problem-solving, it’s like life,” MacMillan said. “We can go over what we expect them to do but then once they get out there and they do something different, you’ve got to problem-solve on the fly. Welcome to life. Things just come up and you’ve got to communicate with the people you work with to solve problems.”
Heading into its league schedule, confidence is not at a premium in the St. Helena program but the Saints also fully understand they can’t get ahead of themselves. The North Central League I has provided tough competition in past years from teams such as Middletown and Kelseyville, and the Saints see the tough road ahead.
“I think we’re pretty confident about what we can do and where we can go, but I don’t think it’s the point where we’re thinking on Monday ‘Oh, we’re beating this team.’ We’re like, ‘OK, let’s study them, let’s understand what they’re doing,’” Martinez said. “We’re confident that we can learn and understand our opponents. We’re confident in our abilities to prepare, and really to execute, too. It’s not a cocky confidence.”
Farrell, too, is cautiously optimistic about the remainder of their season.
“I can’t say it’s all coming together because we have seven games left,” he said, “but there are chances that we like where we’re headed.”