RICHMOND – For the second straight season, the Salesian Pride ended St. Helena’s season on their way to a section title game appearance.
The top-seeded Pride were simply too much for the fourth-seeded Saints to contain in a 49-14 Salesian win in the semifinals of the North Coast Section Division 7 playoffs on Saturday afternoon.
The hosts outscored St. Helena 27-6 over the final 24 minute of play, the final 12 of which were played with a running clock.
St. Helena, which ends the season 9-3, actually held an 8-0 lead after the first quarter. But the Pride (10-2) found the end zone at least twice in each of the remaining three quarters and held the Saints to just one score the rest of the way.
“You have to execute at a tremendous level to beat these guys,” said St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell. “Give them credit, they executed a lot better than what we did.”
A year removed from almost single-handedly beating the Saints with four passing touchdowns, Salesian senior quarterback Ronald Robertson once again accounted for four scores. Two came on the ground on short runs while his two in the air were long, backbreaking plays.
He found Justin Gutierrez for a 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown toward the end of the second quarter that put the Pride up 22-8 at the break, and then hit Kailan Chang for a 79-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth to trigger the running clock.
His four scores were finishing touches on efficient performance of 207 passing yards on 8 of 11 passes to go with 31 rushing yards on 8 carries.
Cody DiTomaso accounted for the Saints’ two scores, the first coming on a 19-yard run to cap the opening drive of the game. The second came midway through the third quarter, cutting a 29-8 deficit to 29-14.
DiTomaso’s 19-yard scamper around the outside of Salesian’s defense with 9:11 left on the clock was exactly the kind of start St. Helena was looking for. It energized the Saints’ sidelines and gave them belief that an upset was possible. The first-quarter shutout only fed into that thought.
But the Pride woke up in the second quarter. They stormed back to score on their opening drive before stopping a fourth-down try by St. Helena to retake possession at the Salesian 40. Kareen Sullivan carried the ball 60 yards to the house on the next play to give the Pride their first lead, 15-8.
The Saints’ following drive also ended on turnover on downs, as another fourth-and-short try failed. Two plays later, Robertson found Gutierrez for the 71-yard scoring strike that made it 22-8 at halftime.
“We just wanted to come out swinging and keep that energy up,” DiTomaso said. “We did come out swinging, but we didn’t keep the energy up.”
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Farrell said he thought his team lost some enthusiasm and focus when things started to go sideways in the second quarter.
“It was tough when we had the ball with a couple fourth-down opportunities and we didn’t execute, but our kids played the way they played all year: fearless,” he said. “They were willing to take risks but some of those risks, especially on those fourth downs, hurt us a bit too much today and we lost our momentum.”
The Pride added more separation when Dominic Fontanilla returned the second-half kickoff 83 yards for touchdown.
The Saints responded with their second scoring drive. It was fueled by several long runs by quarterback Daniel Martinez, who had missed the Saints’ playoff opener with an ankle injury. His two 20-plus-yard runs set the table for DiTomaso to punch it in from 1 yard out, bringing the game within two scores.
But the Saints’ final four offensive possessions of the game went: three-and-out, lost fumble, turnover on downs and another lost fumble. Meanwhile, the Pride scored on three of their final four possessions to fully put the hammer down.
“(Salesian) just did a better job up front,” Farrell said. “They were creating holes and space. It’s pretty tough to try and fight and have to come from behind to have to lean on that much weight. They were just better.”
Thus ends on the one of the best St. Helena football seasons in recent memory. No other Saints team in school history rushed for more yards than this one, and no team boasted a running back duo as dangerous as the two-pronged attack of DiTomaso and sophomore Ivan Robledo.
Both rushed for over 1,000 yards this fall, and DiTomaso ended his prep career among the top four all-time in school history for rushing yards for an individual. There weren’t many rushing records Robledo didn’t shatter this season.
Farrell didn’t want to talk historical standing in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s rout, but he recognized that what this year’s team accomplished was special.
“There will always be time for that stuff later on, but I think most of our kids understand that winning football games, working hard to accomplish our goals and things like that as a team is way more important than any individual accomplishment,” he said. “But I will tell you that this team will be remembered, for sure. It will go down as one of the great St. Helena teams, even if we didn’t go undefeated or get to a section championship game.
“A lot of these kids should look forward to coming back next year and getting another chance at it.”
But for DiTomaso and four other seniors, Saturday was the last time they’ll don the red and white of the Saints on the gridiron. Farrell took time to recognize them postgame.
“Mostly I’m just happy for the seniors about how they finished their football careers,” he said. “Cody and Ryland (Campos) have been just backbones of our team, of our program for a long time; it’s going to be tough to see those guys go. Jake Lehman, unfortunately didn’t get to play the last few games, but all of them, Rowan Knight, Jake Mendes, all those kids that came back, Sergio Hernandez, it was tough. They risked a lot. They didn’t have a big volume of kids in their class that played, but I was thankful that they put the time and effort in because it showed with a great season.”