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Going into its ninth game of the season last fall, St. Helena’s fate hung in the balance.

With a record of 4-4, the Saints’ penultimate North Central League I game against second-place Cloverdale would ultimately dictate which direction their season would go.

A loss would reduce their margin of error to zero with one game left on the schedule. A win would qualify them for the North Coast Section playoffs.

With the stakes as high as they were, the Saints answered the call. They turned in arguably their best performance of the year to beat the Eagles on the road, 49-29. It was ultimately a result that sent St. Helena surging into the home stretch of the season and onward into the playoffs.

Although their season ended in the second round at Salesian in the second round of the playoffs, the young Saints had finally put all the pieces together and were playing the type of football they and their coaches knew they were capable of playing.

Heading into the 2019 season, they’re determined to build on that momentum, but will have hurdles to overcome. The program is down in numbers this fall and has some large holes to fill at key positions. They do return an incredible amount of talent and are brimming with confidence, but the road back to the playoffs – or possibly onto a section title, like they so hope for – won’t be easy.

It never is, but the Saints are ready to attack this new season head on.

“We were really happy with how last year ended,” said head coach Brandon Farrell at this year’s media day at Memorial Stadium back on July 31. “I think just the general vibe ended really well last year. I think that gave us a springboard into this year because I think we have a really good solid base of what the expectations are for the kids.”

While there wasn’t much he could say for certain about his team almost a week before practices in pads officially began, there was one point he felt he could make.

“We’ll know a lot about ourselves really early, most likely before September even starts,” he said, referring to the Saints’ early season matchups.

They’ll open the regular season at home on Aug. 23 against St. Patrick-St. Vincent of Vallejo, a team they’ve faced just once in the last 15 years. The Bruins won the CIF Div. 6 state championship in 2016 and made a trip back to the state playoffs in 2017, but went 6-6 last season.

The Saints will host Sir Francis Drake on Aug. 30 and travel to always dangerous Winters on Sept. 6, before opening NCL I play at reigning league champ Kelseyville on Sept. 20.

It’ll be a trial by fire of sorts for another young Saints team with shrinking numbers. Farrell estimates the varsity roster will be around 18 players, seven of which are returners.

“What kids we have out there, we’re going to coach them as best we can and we’re going to play with the number of kids we have,” Farrell said. “We’ve just got to prepare them for what is going to be in front of them.”

With the lack of numbers, the varsity team has had to practice against the JVs. Several varsity players did say they’re a bit concerned with the lack of turnout, especially when it comes to depth and injuries, but third-year defensive coordinator Steve Vargus sees a silver lining to the situation.

He said that while it’s “different” practicing against the JVs, it’ll help make the entire program better and more cohesive.

“We tell them we’re just one big team,” Vargus explained. “Sometimes the practices last a little bit longer so the JVs don’t get shortchanged in their preparation. … It’s about the whole program and not just the varsity. It can’t be that way because you can’t build a program.”

Vargus is hoping this season to reap what he sowed when he arrived at St. Helena with a handful of other new coaches three years ago.

“They may be young, but they’ve been running our scheme for two years at the JV level with Coach (Ian) MacMillan,” Vargus said. “So it’s a really fluid transition to varsity for them, other than the fact that they may be a little bit smaller initially and will need to get up to the speed of varsity football.”

Farrell agreed.

“The third year usually ends up being a pretty successful year in terms of understanding where they need to be and the kids understand where the coaches want them to be,” he said. “So I think this is a really good potential time for us but noting is guaranteed.”

Farrell is right on both counts. Obviously, nothing is guaranteed in sports, but the Saints do have potential.

They’re returning a core collection of skill players, highlighted by junior quarterback Daniel Martinez, sophomore running back Ivan Robledo and senior running back Cody DiTomaso.

Starting at quarterback as just a sophomore, Martinez became a steadying force for St. Helena last year. His feel for the veer offense improved as the season progressed and his speed and quick decision making turned him into a dangerous offensive threat.

DiTomaso was the team’s leading rusher, finishing with team-highs in rushing yards (1,165 yards) and touchdowns (13). He was also the Saints’ only selection to the All-Offense NCL I team.

Meanwhile, Robledo burst onto the scene as a late JV call-up. As a freshman, he racked up 800 yards and 12 touchdowns in just four games at the varsity level, including both of the Saints’ playoff games.

The talented trio gives St. Helena plenty of offensive firepower.

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“Those three kids have a chance to be real exciting,” Farrell said. “Worth the price of admission, for sure.”

Farrell was also quick to point out talent at other positions, like senior wide receiver and defensive back Jacob Lehman, who led the team with three interceptions last year, junior tight end George Cutting, or linemen like senior Ryland Campos and junior Conlan Harrington.

“We’re really excited about the potential, but you’ve got to figure out where you’re slacking and you can’t do that until you lace them up and play,” Farrell said.

One area that Farrell and the Saints hope they don’t slack on again this year is giving up big plays on defense. In the first half of the season, it seemed like every team the Saints played scored at least one touchdown from midfield or farther.

“We still have nightmares about those,” said senior lineman Rowan Knight.

That was an area of focus for Vargus and the Saints this offseason. They’ve worked more on defensive discipline, focus and technique, all of which will be crucial with the smaller-bodied team they have this year.

Above all else, Vargus thought the defensive lapses were simply products of mental lapses due to inexperience.

“We had some sophomore and juniors playing positions that were new to them and they were young and going against seasoned veterans at times, or they 5-8 and the receiver was 6-3,” he said. “So yes, experience counts and now those guys are back with a year under their belt, and a lot of them worked really hard to get better because they didn’t like what happened last year.”

While games will be the true indicator of their progression, Farrell has already seen growth from his team at large.

“It’s a really interesting thing because you might have one or two really smart kids, but all of the team is really, really intelligent,” he said.

The Saints have been putting in work since last season ended. Some players said they hit the weight room just days after the loss to Salesian and said they haven’t stopped working out since. They ran through a handful of spring practices before summer workouts and conditioning sessions and 7-on-7 scrimmages ate up the rest of their summer breaks.

That work, along with some continuity within the program, has led to positive results so far.

“I feel much better about it coming into the season than I did last year,” said Lehman. “We’ve gone right into our defense and offense. We’re months ahead than where we were last year. Last year at this point in the season, we were learning our base defense and now we’re already putting in our blitzes and other packages.”

Martinez said feels a similar way, at least personally. He spent the offseason getting stronger and working on his passing. He attended a quarterback camp in Santa Rosa during the summer with several other local players and picked up tips and tricks during his time there.

His teammates have taken notice.

“He’s gotten better at passing for sure,” said DiTomaso. “He’s been improving every day.”

While Martinez still has another year of high school ball after this season, DiTomaso is one of a handful of seniors who’s determined to end his career on top.

He, along with Knight, Campos and a number of other seniors all played on the same JV team that went undefeated two years ago. They know what it takes to win and feel they have a championship-caliber team if everything comes together.

“There’s some great chemistry there, most of the guys playing are from that same team,” Knight said. “I’m really confident in the chemistry that we have. I’ve always felt that there’s been a gap between the seniors and juniors but I don’t see that this year. It might be because I’m a senior but I really don’t see that. I feel like we’re all one team all together and we’re all trying to reach that same goal.”

That goal?

“I want a section championship, that’s all I want,” Campos said. “That’s what I’ve been thinking about since last season.”

Once the Saints clear their league opener against the Knights following their bye week on Sept. 14, they hit the road again to take on Clear Lake (Sept. 27) before returning home to host Willits (Oct. 4) and Middletown (Oct. 11). They’ll then play at Fort Bragg (Oct. 18), host Cloverdale (Oct. 25) and then close out the regular season at Lower Lake (Nov. 1).

The NCS also did some rearranging with divisions this offseason. St. Helena played in Div. 5 last season but will now play in Div. 7, albeit against many of the same teams they’ve played in the past. There are 16 teams in divisions 1-7 and only eight in each will qualify for the playoffs.

Cloverdale, Clear Lake and Willits are all in St. Helena’s division, while Lower Lake, Fort Bragg, Middletown and St. Patrick-St. Vincent are in Div. 6. Winters plays in Div. 4 of the Northern Section.

“We have 10 games on our schedule and we only need to prepare for one a week and if you make the playoffs, it’s a bonus,” Farrell said about the division shakeup. “By that point in time, it doesn’t matter where we go or whether we’re close to home or farther from home. Our division is not any different than it was 10 years ago. … I just wish there was more alignment in the northern part of California just to give us a more balanced look of different teams.

“I would say that none of it matters in the end, though,” he added. “Just play games. Whoever shows up in front of you, just play them.”

That time will come soon enough.

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Sports Reporter

Gus Morris covers St. Helena and Calistoga sports for the Napa Valley Register. Before joining the Register in 2018, he covered collegiate sports for the student publication at the University of Oregon.