Vaea Anitoni wasn’t sure that his son Solomon’s Justin-Siena football team would make it past nemesis Piedmont last Friday and be playing again this weekend.
So he bought plane tickets to Minnesota for him and his wife Sia to watch their older son, St. John’s College defensive end and punter Naufahu Anitoni, play his last home for the NCAA Division III Johnnies in Collegeville on Saturday and see if they could secure a 10-0 regular season.
But Solomone Anitoni and the Braves had other plans – to make it to the CIF North Coast Section Division 4 quarterfinals. But first they had to pull off an improbable win at Piedmont, a team that had dominated them in their season opener on the same field, 28-7.
Justin-Siena got its revenge in a big way, 53-28.
Vaea Anitoni, who coaches the Napa Valley “Wine Thieves” men’s rugby team that’s been practicing after the Braves at Dodd Stadium on Tuesday and Thursday nights, not only had to wait for his son’s practice to end again. He had to eat a plane ticket, since one parent will be heading north instead of east.
The 10th-seeded Braves (5-6) will begin a six-hour ride to Crescent City on Friday morning, arriving early to get acclimated to the Humboldt County coast, before taking on No. 2 seed Del Norte (9-2) in a 7 p.m. quarterfinal.
Antoni leads Justin-Siena in receiving with 41 catches, 514 yards and eight touchdowns. The junior and seniors Luigi Albano-Dito (33 catches for 483 yards, four TDs), John Horn (21 for 320, two TDs), Shane Rosenthal (20 for 297, five TDs) and Michael Fitzgerald (nine for 142, five TDs) have helped senior quarterback Barrett Donohoe throw for a career-high 2,057 yards and 25 touchdowns, with just five interceptions.
While Anitoni came to Justin-Siena with years of youth football under his belt, the other three didn’t start playing until they were freshmen. But Albano-Dito and Horn had played a lot of baseball, and that athleticism carried over to football.
“Fortunately, John and Luigi are phenomenal athletes, so that helped significantly. But I give them a lot of credit because they both understand the game really well for having played only four years,” Braves head coach Brandon LaRocco said. “John is our strong-side outside linebacker. He and Michael Fitzgerald are our top two defensive players this year. John plays a huge, huge role on defense. He’s one of my top tacklers and he has to play the run and be able to cover in space, which takes a really unique skill set and John definitely brings that to the table.”
Added Albano-Dito, “John has always been a shut-down player on defense, and on offense he will come up with a really big play now and then. He can go up and catch a ball and he’s got good hands, too.”
Anitoni is impressed with how Albano-Dito recovered from a slow start.
“He was out for the first two games and almost the whole summer. But literally his first practice back, he started scoring touchdowns on our defense like crazy. It was scary. We were just excited to have him back. He has improved a lot, and being one of our playmakers.”
Anitoni mostly catches and carries the ball on offense and returns punts and kickoffs, but even rotates in at defensive back sometimes.
“Solomone is such a unique athlete,” LaRocco said. ”It’s about getting him the ball in space so he can make plays. We do a lot of short routes to him and then we take some shots (downfield) with him as well. He’s probably the best at yards after contact.
“He’s been playing running back his whole life, but last year we didn’t want to put him in the backfield and have him get a bunch of wear and tear. We didn’t think he was physically ready for that, although he probably would have been fine. So we put him at the slot.”
Added Albano-Dito, “All I’ve got to say about Solomone is it’s scary whenever he gets the ball in his hands. He can just make plays and get through people like it’s nothing.”
Rosenthal is the only Brave to throw a pass this season other than Donohoe and JV playoff call-up Hudson Beers, who completed his only varsity throw last week. Against Vintage, the ball was snapped to a running back who pitched to Rosenthal, who threw incomplete to Donohoe.
“It was a Philly Special, but a bad pass,” Rosenthal said of the play run successfully by the Eagles in the Super Bowl last winter.
Will they use it Friday?
“Perhaps,” he said. “But a magician never reveals his tricks.”
Rosenthal can be trick to cover and tackle, his coach said.
“Outside of Barrett, Shane has the best grasp on our overall offense,” said LaRocco. “He’s very intuitive. He understands spacing and the route distribution and why we use our routes the way we do to create space and stretch defenses. He’s also a really good route runner and he’s deceptively fast; he’s caught quite a few deep balls for us this year.”
Rosenthal also likes to make his teammates look good.
“I pride myself in downfield blocking,” he said. “If you lay a good block when the receiver next to you catches the ball and it gives them a chance to score, it helps the team out further.”
When Anitoni arrived during their sophomore year, the seniors’ JV team went 7-3 and 6-1 in the Marin County Athletic League, its only league loss coming against powerful Marin Catholic in the season finale. It had been a goal to do well at the varsity level after that, and a second straight first-round playoff loss wasn’t going to cut it – especially after four of this year’s four Vine Valley Athletic League losses came by a combined 14 points.
“It was challenging because we started off strong and then we lose those close games,” Rosenthal said. “We knew we’d had this good team since our JV year and we didn’t want to give up on this team. We knew we fit together and had a good team. We just needed to find it and bounce back. I think we did that against Piedmont.”
Added Horn, “I knew 100 percent we were fully capable of beating them because, from the beginning of the season to now, we’re a much better team. Since it’s playoffs, we all got over our selfishness and played more as one whole unit and had one goal, to win.”
Last week’s Piedmont game started like the season opener, however, with a Highlanders touchdown.
“Right after that,” recalled Albano-Dito, “I went up to Barrett and said ‘Let’s get (a touchdown) next series.’ We didn’t, but we did on the one after that.”
Added Anitoni, “During our losses, we were trying to make plays individually to get things started. Against Piedmont, we verified that we had to play as a team to go far.”
Albano-Dito said receivers-defensive backs coach Thomas Coakley has upper their games.
“He shows us all the right moves to make and if they’re pressing up on us, how to get off the ball and for DBs, the right way to cover and stuff and how to read the wide receiver’s footwork,” he said. “He’s not afraid to get on your if you mess up, either.”
They said Donohoe worked hard on his game after throwing for 1,158 yards and 10 touchdowns with just eight interceptions in nine games last year.
“He got incredibly better with arm power and accuracy, and then he got better visually on the field, knowing where to throw it and at the right time,” Horn said.
Albano-Dito said Donohoe’s skills force receivers to be alert.
“Every single pass play you’ve got to be ready because you know if Barrett finds you open, he’ll throw it to you and you’d better be expecting the ball. It’s usually a perfect throw, right on a dime.”
Added Anitoni, “It feels really good playing with a quarterback know he can do his job, and it’s really inspired me to do my job as well, to make sure I give him a good look.”
Del Norte’s quarterback is usually Ethan Price, a versatile senior who had more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving along with a 58-yard completion in one game, and 229 yards rushing in another.
“No. 4 will play quarterback, he’ll play running back, he’ll play wide receiver, he’ll play tight end,” LaRocco said of Price. “It’s just a matter of where they want to use him and whether they want to give him the ball, because they use him to block a lot, too, when they run their outside stuff. He’ll usually be the guy who tries to pin the defensive end or pint he outside linebacker. He’s a very talented player, very multi-tooled.”
Sebastian Puente, a 5-8, 185-pound running back, has also had several 100-yard rushing nights for the Warriors.
“No. 25 is pretty stout – not very tall but has good thickness to him – and runs really hard between the tackles and I think has deceptive speed,” LaRocco said of Puente. “Quite a few plays on film he breaks big runs when he reaches the second level.
“They’re really big and physical on the line, which is a characteristic of a lot of these good teams up north. They have good size and get to their blocking assignments consistently. They’re good at double teams and they pull really well.”
The Braves are ready to play until the final whistle.
“We need to keep on fighting to the end,” said Rosenthal. “Even if we’re up, we need to play with that full intensity.”
Added Albano-Dito, “We need to start strong and end strong.”
LaRocco said playoff road trips to Humboldt County and long and, in this case, will force the players to make up Friday’s classwork, but can be a highlight of the season.
“Over the years we’ve played Ferndale, Arcata, Del Norte, Fortuna and year in and year out no matter which one we’re playing, they play hard-nosed, physical, fundamentally well-coached football. So we’re going to have our work cut out for us,” LaRocco said, agreeing that those teams seem to have something to prove against Bay Area schools.
“But I like the idea of these guys spending that bus ride together and staying focused on football the entire day.”