Just four teams remain in each bracket, so the cream has certainly risen to the top by this point of the season. We break down each of the semifinal games to be played this weekend. This feature focuses on Division 7 and the 8-Person brackets in the North Coast Section.
No. 4 St. Helena (9-2) at No. 1 Salesian (8-2), Saturday, 1 pm
Four-seed St. Helena is looking for its berth in the NCS title game since 2014, when it lost to a familiar opponent, Salesian. The Pride also ended the Saints’ post-season last year, albeit in the quarterfinals. Salesian, meanwhile, is looking for a shot at redemption in the title game, after falling to Middletown for the Division 5 championship last year.
St. Helena enters the game having won four straight after a somewhat surprising two-game skid during the regular season, a short stretch that included a 30-28 loss to Willits, a game which ultimately cemented the Saints’ spot at the four seed. In that game, St. Helena displayed how well it can run the ball, but also showed a vulnerability when it turned the ball over, committing six turnovers in that loss. When St. Helena holds onto the ball, however, it is a dangerous team.
Sophomore Ivan Robledo leads the rushing attack, having gained 1,809 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground, twice topping the 300-yard mark this season. But if defenses get too focused on Robledo, Cody DiTomaso has also gone over 1,000 yards for the year, and junior quarterback Daniel Martinez can keep the ball and make defenses pay with his legs. One of the big challenges for St. Helena, however, will be adapting to a level of speed it rarely sees on its schedule.
“Salesian has a combination of size and speed that we don’t see week to week, so how quickly we can adjust will be a big difference. We’ve played teams with similar attributes, but just not together and not as consistent as they have,” said St. Helena coach Brandon Farrell.
Part of the keys to success for the Saints will be to avoid those turnover issues which reared their head earlier this season.
“We have to avoid setting them up for easy and quick scores,” Farrell added. “They do a great job of creating and then capitalizing on those opportunities. They are very aggressive defensively, so being able to handle the line of scrimmage is important, but then again, that’s the case in every game.”
One of the big factors up front for Salesian will no doubt be the play of two-way line standout Princeton Toki, a UC Davis commit whose play could dictate the war in the trenches. Meanwhile, the Pride are also loaded at the skill positions, with two-year starter Ronald Robertson at quarterback, and explosive Kareem Sullivan in the backfield. Kailan Chang is Robertson’s top target in the passing game, but Nicholas Fay, Elijah Satcher and Justin Gutierrez are all threats with the ball.
The last three meetings between these schools have all occurred in the playoffs. Salesian won the 2014 and 2018 meetings, while St. Helena eliminated the Pride from the 2012 post-season.
No. 3 Willits (8-3) at No. 2 Ferndale (9-2), Saturday, 1 pm
One of the biggest surprise teams this season has to be Willits, which improved from a one-win team in 2018 to tied for second in the NCL this season. The Wolverines also boast one of the top multi-threat players in senior Jacob Arms, who along with Gabe McGinnis paces the Willits run game, while also leading the defense from his linebacker position and serving as a weapon in the return game.
The team hosting the Wolverines, however, is one that looks to return to prominence in the small school playoffs. Ferndale last won a section title in 2012, the most recent of 12 NCS crowns for the Wildcats. After notching just four wins last season, Clint McClurg’s squad has fully utilized the talents of players such as 6-foot-2 junior quarterback Jenner Christiansen and all-around talented senior Landon Gomes to go unbeaten in the HDN-Little 4 and build momentum for another post-season run.
Christiansen led an aerial assault on California School for the Deaf last week in the quarterfinals, throwing for four scores while running for two more, connecting with junior receiver Javier Lopez for three of those touchdowns. Senior tight end and outside linebacker Tristen Martin is another two-way standout for the Wildcats.
Ferndale has won seven straight meetings against Willits, including a 55-27 win in last year’s season opener, when Gomes threw for four touchdowns. The Wildcats have scored at least 34 points in all seven of those wins.
No. 1 Cornerstone Christian (10-0) at No. 4 Calistoga (5-3), Friday, 7 pm
After going unbeaten in the regular season, top seed Cornerstone Christian will have to go on the road for its semifinal game against Calistoga, since the Cougars do not have a suitable home facility. Location has hardly seemed to matter this season, however, as Cornerstone has scored 40 or more points in all 10 of its games, which include wins over both of the other semifinalists in this division, Branson and South Fork.
Calistoga, meanwhile, shook off losses in its last two regular season games to reach the semifinals. That included a 20-14 win over Tomales last week, reversing a 46-28 loss to the Braves in the final game of the regular season.
These teams had four common opponents during the season. Both teams beat Pinewood and Upper Lake, while Calistoga fell to Branson and Woodside Priory, both teams which lost to Cornerstone Christian.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these programs.
No. 2 Branson (7-1) at No. 3 South Fork (7-2), Saturday, 7 pm
After winning the inaugural 8-Person NCS title last season, Branson seeks a return to the big game, and the Bulls carry a seven-game win streak into the post-season, after falling 66-62 to Cornerstone Christian in their first game of the season.
These teams did meet earlier this year, with Branson handing South Fork a 72-28 defeat. The Bulls also beat Calistoga, Laytonville and Tomales during the regular season, all playoff teams. South Fork pulled a rare feat in 8-person football last week, blanking Laytonville in the quarterfinals.
This will be the fourth meeting in two years between these teams, who also met in last year’s title game. Branson has won all three games so far, including a 50-14 win for the championship last season.