ST. HELENA — With about five minutes remaining in the third quarter of Saturday night’s CIF North Coast Section Div. 5 football playoff opener, Hoopa Valley quarterback John Smith looked to start a rallying drive to try to cut into St. Helena’s 14-point lead.
The Warriors had led by one at the half, but St. Helena came out of the break reenergized on defense and put all the pressure on Hoopa Valley.
On the first play of the Warriors’ drive, Smith dropped back and looked for a receiver, but instead saw only red. Freshman Ivan Robledo burst through the offensive line, smashed into Smith and forced the ball loose. Quick as a flash, Robledo’s older brother, Luis, lunged forward and secured the football, giving the Saints field position at Hoopa Valley’s 17-yard line.
“I didn’t even know it was my brother,” the elder Robledo said. “I didn’t see him till after the play.”
Two plays later, the Saints scored to take a commanding 20-point lead.
There would be no Warriors comeback at Bob Patterson Memorial Field. Smith’s fumble was one of four second-half Hoopa Valley turnovers that St. Helena forced on its way to shutting out the Warriors over the final 24 minutes to secure a 48-22 win and punch its ticket to the quarterfinals.
The seventh-seeded Saints (7-4) scored 21 unanswered points over a one-minute, 21-second span in the third quarter to flip their 22-21 halftime deficit into a 42-22 commanding lead. That run started with Cody DiTomaso’s 4-yard touchdown run at the 6:06 mark, continued with a 35-yard pick-six for Luis Robledo with 5:08 left, and then was capped by a 1-yard run from Saints quarterback Daniel Martinez at the 4:45 mark.
“I’m really proud of our team,” said St. Helena senior lineman Frank Lenney. “The first half was a little slow. Our offense was producing but our defense couldn’t stop them enough. At halftime, we went in and said, ‘Hey, we got 24 guaranteed minutes left. Play like it’s the last (24 minutes).’ We went out there, pitched a second-half shutout, and I feel great right now.”
The St. Helena win ends a magical season for No. 10 Hoopa Valley (6-5) that Warriors head coach Willie Simms called “a complete turnaround” after coming off consecutive one-win seasons.
“We had a turnover and they capitalized really well,” Simms said of the second half on Saturday. “We came out, had another turnover, and they capitalized on that one as well. We just had too many turnovers today. That’s all it was. I thought we were handling our own in the first half. We were hanging tough.”
As a team, St. Helena rushed for 423 yards with six touchdowns. The younger Robledo continued to impress with a game-high 234 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. His 49-yard touchdown with 1:39 left in the fourth quarter was the exclamation point on another dominant night.
“I’m really happy with what we call the short-side of the offensive line that we’ve been running to guys like Gannon (Wilson) and Rowan (Knight) quite a bit these last few weeks and honestly, we ran really well behind Diesel Chappelet and Jack Adkins today,” said Saints head coach Brandon Farrell. “So I’ve got to give them credit. They did a great job.”
While the Saints did force four turnovers on defense and Farrell was happy with the results overall, he still saw room for improvement – especially considering that the Warriors converted four fourth-down tries.
“We shut them out in the second half and I’m really proud of our guys for that,” said Farrell. “But we had trouble getting them off the field on the third and long and a lot of fourth-down plays, so that was frustrating a little bit. We played softer in the first half and Coach (Steve) Vargus, to his credit, went back to what he does best and put pressure on people to get the ball out early and that created four turnovers and a shutout in the second half. Really proud of the defense for getting that pressure on them in the second half.”
The usually-balanced Warriors offense turned pass-happy in the second half as they ran the ball only 10 times and netted minus-9 rushing yards. For the game, Hoopa Valley ran 30 times and netted only 50 rushing yards. Smith completed 24 of 39 passes for 362 yards with one touchdown, but added two picks.
Carlos Aguilar caught a game-high eight passes for 153 yards but never scored – unlike Samuel Jones, who had three catches for 33 yards and a touchdown reception on an 18-yard pass in the second quarter.
The Saints committed their fair share of turnovers, as well, with Martinez throwing two interceptions and the Robledo brothers each coughing up a fumble. But those turnovers never led to Hoopa Valley scores.
DiTomaso added another strong effort on the ground with 137 yards on 16 carries with two touchdowns. Martinez added 27 rushing yards on 10 carries with a score.
St. Helena drew first blood late in the opening quarter when Robledo found paydirt on a 28-yard touchdown run. Hoopa Valley’s ensuing drive rolled into the second frame, but the Warriors scored on their first play of the quarter with a slant pass to Jones from 18 yards out. They took an 8-7 lead after converting the two-point try.
The Saints wasted no time responding. They capitalized on a muffed kickoff and scored three plays later on a 30-yard run from DiTomaso to take a 14-8 lead.
A 58-yard pass from Smith to Aguilar set up a 2-yard touchdown run from Kimit Peters, who led the Warriors with 32 rushing yards. Each team traded scores before the half, and then the Saints caught fire and never looked back.
St. Helena has now rattled three straight wins in pretty convincing fashion. The Saints have averaged 426 rushing yards per game over their last three and feel like their offense is playing as well as it has all season.
“I think we’re peaking right now,” said Martinez. “Maybe it is that we found our flow and we’re just keeping with it. … Right now if we keep going like we are, everybody is together, everybody does their part and that’s why we’re succeeding.”
The Saints will have one of their toughest challenges yet next week when they travel to Richmond to play No. 2 seed Salesian College Prep (6-4) in the quarterfinals. The game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday.
“With Salesian, we’ve got to go out there and fight hard,” Lenney said. “It’s going to be a really tough game, but if we play our best game, I think we can beat them.”