The St. Vincent High School football team, like a modern-day Phoenix rising from the ashes of a 1-8 record just two seasons ago, tries to reach new heights in the North Coast Section Division 7 playoffs.
St. Vincent’s Mustangs will start their quest Friday night in St. Helena against the formidable Saints, an infantry team that has marched over eight of 10 opponents on its way to the playoffs.
Just two seasons ago, the St. Vincent football team was on life support with a 1-8 record. Last season, under the direction of new head coach Trent Herzog, they improved to 6-5 and reached the NCS playoffs, where they were eliminated by Middletown, 48-0.
Those playoffs were in a different format than is being used this season. Sixteen teams made the grade. This year, with the number of divisions increased from five to seven for 11-man football, only eight teams in each division are eligible.
St. Vincent is in Division 7, but it is a particularly talented group that includes the likes of No. 1 Salesian, Ferndale, California School for the Deaf, Willits and El Molino from the North Bay League-Redwood.
St. Helena is one of the best of that group. Ranked No. 4 to St. Vincent’s No. 6, the Saints lost only to Willits, 30-28, a team that also beat St. Vincent and Middletown. They scored 415 points, an average of 41.5 per game.
After turning its program around last season, St. Vincent has been dominant this fall, losing only to Willits, 27-0.
After waiting a week because of the Kincade Fire, St. Helena closed out its regular season last week with a wild 54-39 win over Lower Lake. St. Vincent has not played since Oct. 26 when it rallied for a spectacular last-second win over California School for the Deaf, 51-44.
Herzog said the three-week break is both helpful and harmful for his team.
On the good side, the Mustangs go into the game completely healthy with all hands ready to play. On the other side, all the practice in the world is not like playing a game. “You can’t simulate that (a game) in practice,” Herzog said.
However, the time off has given the Mustangs a chance to prepare for St. Helena.
“We had expected that we would be playing them, so we prepared for them,” the coach said. “We practiced for them, we watched film and we scouted them three times.”
What Herzog and his staff have seen is a team that runs the football and runs it very effectively.
“They are going to come right at us,” the St. Vincent coach said. “They run the ball 90 percent of the time.”
According to Herzog, the Saints employ an option-style offense similar to what Petaluma High runs, but out of a different formation and without many outside pitches.
“They run dive, dive, dive and then the quarterback runs it,” Herzog explained.
That quarterback is Daniel Martinez, who directs the Saints’ option offense and will throw on occasion as he proved in the win over Lower Lake when he completed a 58-yard touchdown pass to Cody DiTomaso.
But the star of the St. Helena offense — indeed a star of the entire NCS — is sophomore Ivan Robledo. Against Lower Lake, he ran for 329 yards and six touchdowns. For the season he has rushed for 1,809 yards and 29 touchdowns.
DiTomaso has also passed the 1,000-yard rushing mark on the season.
St. Vincent has its own share of offensive weapons. Mustang freshman Kai Hall has gained 1,667 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. He averages almost 10 yards per carry and is a scoring threat from anywhere on the field.
After missing much of the season with an injury, senior Devaneaux Sagaral has provided a speedy compliment to the freshman, averaging close to five yards a carry in limited playing time.
St. Vincent has gotten better as the season progressed, and much of the improvement is parallel to the improvement of sophomore quarterback Jacob Porteous.
“We knew he was going to be good. All he needed was experience,” said Herzog. “He really showed leadership, especially against CSD.”
For the season, Porteous completed 80 of 145 passes for 1,352 yards and 17 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He has quarterback rating of 117.4.
As spectacular as are the numbers of the runners, throwers and catchers, Herzog said it is the players without statistics who will probably decide the outcome.
“Both teams have good skill people,” he said, “but the offensive and defensive lines will decide the game. It is going to be won at the point of attack.”
St. Helena’s line has opened the way for more than 3,500 rushing yards this season.
Herzog has said the St. Vincent line of Giovanni Antonini, Morgan Morarity, Garrett Caramucci, Tommy Izard and Giovanni Vaca is one of the best he has ever coached and that includes some very strong lines during his seasons at Casa Grande.
That line includes one of the team captains, tight end Rory Morgan, who is not only an excellent blocker, but also one of the team’s top defenders.
Much of the St. Vincent offense, one way or another, flows through Andrew Kohler, a senior who Herzog called, “our unsung hero.”
Not only is Kohler instrumental as a lead blocker for Hall, but he has been valuable carrying the ball himself and receiving the ball as a wide out.
So potent have been the offenses for both teams, that sometimes overlooked are two solid defenses. The overall numbers are skewed because both teams have given up points late in blow-out wins.
St. Helena has recorded two shutouts and held another team to just one touchdown. In five games the Saints won by 20 points or more.
St. Vincent’s defense has been even more impressive. The Mustangs have three shutouts on the season and three other games where they have held opposing teams to seven points or less.
Antonini is having a monster year on defense. The junior has 82 tackles on the season, including a whopping 26 for loss.
His sophomore brother, Dante, leads the St. Vincent backfield and has three pass interceptions. Other leaders on a swarming team defense are Morgan, Kohler and sophomore Liam O’Hare.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m.