Despite all that had gone wrong, only 3 yards stood between St. Helena and a shot at redemption Friday night.
Saints quarterback Daniel Martinez had just delivered the biggest play of the evening, a 9-yard touchdown pass to George Cutting as time expired to bring the hosts within 30-28 of the visiting Willits Wolverines, who had led the entirety of the North Central League I contest.
The St. Helena offense remained on the field, needing to convert the two-point try to send the game to overtime and give it a chance to right all the wrongs of the previous 48 minutes. The main reason the Saints were trailing a team they hadn’t lost to in eight seasons was because of a season-high six turnovers.
With their perfect 5-0 record on the line, all they needed was 3 more yards.
They only got 2.
Martinez was stuffed by the Wolverines at the 1-yard line, bringing to a close a wild 30-28 upset victory for Willits, its first over St. Helena since 2010, at Bob Patterson Memorial Field on Friday night.
The Wolverines (5-1, 3-0 NCL I) scored the first 17 points of the game and had led from the 11:41 mark of the first quarter. Despite coughing up four fumbles and throwing two interceptions, St. Helena (5-1, 2-1 NCL I) had clawed its way back bit by bit and pulled to as close as 23-22 early in the third quarter.
Willits re-extended its lead later in the third but left the door open ever so slightly for the persistent Saints, who eventually put together a frantic yet methodic 12-play drive over the last 4:30 of the game that ended with Martinez’s touchdown pass to Cutting as time expired.
But in the end, Willits was just the better team.
“Our kids are going to fight to the end, there’s no doubt about that. I’m proud of them,” St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell said. “Willits played harder, especially at the beginning of the game. We’ve got to give them all the credit in the world.”
Leading the first quarter onslaught for the visitors was senior slot receiver Jacob Arms. He broke free on the first play of the game for a 72-yard touchdown run. Following an Ivan Robledo fumble on the Saints’ first play of their opening drive, Arms connected with Eric Colvard for a 30-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-long situation to put the Wolverines up 14-0 less than three minutes into the game.
“We were kind of shell-shocked, but they made the plays and we didn’t,” Farrell said. “It’s not like we were sitting there wondering what the heck they were doing. I mean each play they scored on was a toss and a halfback pass. We had seen that three times on film, so it’s not like we didn’t know they were going to run that.
“It’s just we got outplayed in the beginning. I don’t know if we got outplayed the whole game, but they definitely played better than us and made fewer mistakes to win the game.”
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The Saints eventually got on the board before the half on a rushing touchdown from Robledo, one of a team-high three he had on the night. A game removed from setting the school record with 284 rushing yards, the sophomore running back upped the record with 294 rushing yards with three touchdowns on 30 carries, albeit in a losing effort.
His first score made it 17-8, the score at halftime. His second, a 61-yard run, came four plays into the second half to make things interesting at 17-14. Following that score, the Saints forced a three-and-out, but a Martinez interception on a pass to the end zone ended St. Helena’s ensuing drive.
Two plays after that turnover, the Saints’ fourth of the game, Arms found the end zone on a 20-yard run to make it 23-14. Arms finished with a team-high 192 yards on eight carries with two touchdowns to go with an interception on defense.
The Saints turned the ball over again on a fumble on their following drive, but forced a Willits turnover on downs deep in Saints territory.
With just under a minute off the clock in the fourth, Robledo broke free for his third touchdown of the game, this one for 89 yards. That made it 23-22 after a successful two-point conversion.
Naturally, the Wolverines answered with another quick touchdown. They needed only two plays to go 50 yards, capped off by a 22-yard run by Gabe McGinnis that gave them some breathing room at 30-22.
The Saints then committed their final turnover on another fumble that ended a promising drive with about six minutes left in the fourth. Willits couldn’t do anything on its ensuing possession and St. Helena got the ball back at its own 34, knowing the game could well be decided by its upcoming drive.
For the next four minutes and 30 seconds, an anxious buzz hung on the field. The Saints, many of whom had exited with injuries at points throughout the game only to return to fight once more, dug deep and fought for yards harder than they had all season. They worked all the way to Willits’ 9 with three seconds left on the clock before Martinez found a wide-open Cutting in the end zone as the clock hit 0:00.
But you know how the rest goes. The Saints were close, but close simply isn’t good enough.
“I thought we did a good job in the second half, better than we did in the first half,” Farrell said. “But just didn’t do enough.”
The loss sets up a fascinating league matchup next week with Middletown, the other team undefeated in NCL I play. The Mustangs (4-2, 3-0) beat Clear Lake on Friday, 42-14, and have won their three league contests by an average margin of 20 points.
St. Helena JV 36, Willits 0
The Saints moved to 6-0 on the year with the shutout. The hosts led 20-0 at halftime before Harrison Ronayne broke away for an 86-yard touchdown run to extend the lead in the third quarter. Spencer Printz punched in another score in the fourth quarter to put the finishing touches on the contest.