Under regular circumstances, St. Helena having a playoff football game midway through November would indicate that the Saints are on a deep run through the playoffs and have a real shot at making a section title game.
But the wildfires in Butte County have made this year’s playoff experience for Northern California teams still playing anything but regular.
The smoke from the Camp Fire burning hundreds of miles away has caused a massive headache for the CIF, the governing body of high school athletics in California, for high schools in the northern part of the state. The smoke has forced the rescheduling of so many playoff games – including St. Helena’s North Coast Section Div. 5 quarterfinal against Salesian, now set to kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday in Richmond – that the CIF rescheduled a handful of key fall sports postseason events on Monday. That includes pushing the start of the NorCal Football Championship and the State Football Championship back a week.
Caught in the mix of this reshuffling is seventh-seeded St. Helena, which earned its meeting with No. 2 seed Salesian by beating No. 10 Hoopa Valley 48-22 two weeks ago. The Saints are one of many teams in the area dealing with cancellations, postponements and the rescheduling of games.
Last Thursday, their game against the Pride was rescheduled to Monday due to air quality concerns from the smoke that is still hanging around the Bay Area. On Sunday, the game was postponed again, and on Monday it was officially rescheduled for this Saturday, a full week after originally scheduled.
“These are the cards you’re dealt and you’ve got to do the best you can to try to get the kids to stay motivated and all that,” said St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell after practice on Tuesday. “We’ve been real happy with how the kids responded. It’s too bad that anybody goes through this. We were obviously in the thick of it last year and unfortunately Paradise’s program had to end early.
“It’s just, unfortunately, becoming something you almost kind of deal with. Nobody wants to deal with it, and you’re just doing as best you can to keep the kids motivated.”
That was one of the bigger concerns for Farrell and his staff as these postponements and reschedulings kept happening: How do we keep our players locked in and motivated?
For a team that was rolling like the Saints were two weeks ago, keeping that momentum could be the deciding factor on Saturday. St. Helena has not played a football game for two weeks and held its last five practices in the basketball gym since the air in the Napa Valley is still unhealthy to breathe in large quantities.
All those distractions might normally be disastrous to a streaking football team, right? Well, they haven’t been to the Saints.
In fact, some of the Saints feel the time off has helped in their preparation for Salesian.
“Honestly, I think it’s better that we got pushed back a week,” said senior Lukas Pakter on Tuesday. “I know a lot of people are looking at it like it’s a bad thing, like now we have to wait another week. But I look at it like, before this game, if we would’ve played on Saturday, that would’ve been one week of practice to their two weeks. But now we’ve had two weeks of practice to their three, so the playing fields are a little more even. That’s how I look at it.
“I think that having that extra week is a good thing and we’ll be more prepared now. Just going through everything in practice and all the reps and everything, it looks like we’re really set up for this. … I think that from our practices, we’re really going to be set for this.”
Even the move indoors has played a helpful role in St. Helena’s preparation. Several players on Tuesday said that their practices inside have helped them reinforce important details that, on a regular week-by-week schedule, they may not usually have time to shore up. Pakter added that practicing inside has helped the Saints prepare themselves mentally for their biggest game of the year.
“It’s helpful getting our minds right, in a way,” Pakter said. “Maybe not so much physically, because we can’t run around, but mentally I think it’s better than being inside because we can focus on the reading-our-keys aspect of it.”
The Saints’ coaching staff even decided to make Monday more of a bonding day, and held relay races and other team-building activities during practice.
Through all the changes and the waiting, though, Farrell said that the team’s attitude “couldn’t be better.” They know the stakes and what awaits them on Saturday, and seem ready to face it directly.
“I don’t think it’s anything that myself or any of the other coaches set – I just think the kids really like being around each other,” he said.
Pakter especially agreed with that sentiment from Farrell. The senior running back and linebacker said that he’s seen a complete opposite reaction from the team about having its season disrupted by fires.
The Saints had to cancel two games in the middle of last season due to the deadly wildfires that swept through Napa and Sonoma counties, and Pakter said that it was difficult for players to get back into the season once they returned to school.
While the circumstances are somewhat less drastic locally than last year, Pakter doesn’t see that quit he witnessed last season.
“I think a lot of people, since we didn’t play last week, are really excited to play now,” he said. “It’s shifted. The attitude is definitely better for this upcoming game.”
Added quarterback Daniel Martinez, “People want to keep going. We’re still out here working and that’s just everyone’s mindset. Nobody wants to go home yet. We all want to make it to the end.”