Middletown faces nemesis in title game

Middletown running back David Pike has rushed for 1,735 yards and a Lake County-record 33 touchdowns this season. Kent Porter / The Press Democrat

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Middletown has quietly forged one of the strongest small-school football programs in Northern California, with North Coast Section Class A championships in 1997, 1999 and 2001, and a 76-16 mark (.826 winning percentage) since the start of 2003 — a record that improved to 32-5 (.865) over the past three seasons.

Still, there is one thorn that the Mustangs have had a hard time extracting from their hooves: the Salesian Pride.

Long-time Middletown coach Bill Foltmer and Salesian coach Chad Nightingale like to test one another in the preseason.

So their teams have faced off each of the past four years. Salesian won three of those early-season games.

The only time Middletown prevailed, in 2008, the Pride got the last laugh by knocking the Mustangs out of the North Coast Section playoffs later that year.

Now they meet again, at Alhambra High in Martinez tonight, with the NCS Division 4 title on the line.

“Of all the teams in the tournament, we probably know Salesian as good as any,” Foltmer said.

And vice-versa.

This year’s Middletown-Salesian game was a classic of the genre, with the Pride prevailing 57-52 at Middletown.

In all likelihood, the score will be similarly dizzying this Saturday, making the D4 championship a game to watch.

The Mustangs (12-1) have averaged 44 points a game in 2010. Salesian (10-2) has averaged 49.8, and 57.1 since losing to McClymonds of Oakland on Oct. 2.

Expect this one to be decided on the ground.

Middletown’s David Pike enters the game with 1,735 rushing yards and a Lake County-record 33 touchdowns, and fullback Jake Davis is a 1,000-yard rusher, too.

Foltmer calls his current system “the most explosive offense I’ve ever had” in 26 years at the school.

Meanwhile, Salesian — the school that spawned current Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best — has a running threat of its own in Aaron Prier, who galloped for 277 yards and four scores against Ferndale, much of it behind super-recruit offensive tackle Freddie Tagaloa in the Pride’s counter-trey attack.

“With such an offense, knowing what they’re doing and actually stopping it are two different things,” Foltmer said.

“They’re so extremely fast. Coach Nightingale is a good friend of mine. We talk all the time, and he thinks this is one of the best offenses he’s had in some time, even better than the Jahvid Best offense. Prier had a great game versus Ferndale. He’s fast and elusive, and on turf he’s even better.”

The field at Alhambra is synthetic turf.

Third-seeded Salesian advanced to the final by trouncing Ferndale 76-28. No. 4 Middletown played an uncharacteristically slow-paced game on muddy Bill Foltmer Field and walked away with a 10-0 victory over No. 1 seed Healdsburg.

The Mustangs beat another Sonoma County League team, El Molino, in the quarterfinals, giving Foltmer’s players a lot of confidence as they prepare for another elite foe.

If the season-opening loss to Salesian was disheartening for the Mustangs, it also provided some valuable lessons. Exposed by the Pride’s running attack, Foltmer wound up moving Pike from outside linebacker to cornerback, and rearranging a few other dominoes accordingly. The Middletown defense hasn’t allowed more than 14 points since, recording eight shutouts along the way.

The Mustangs have another reason to believe the result can be different in the rematch. Davis, their best two-way player, missed the first game with a broken jaw.

Foltmer believes Davis could start at linebacker for a school of any size.

“He’s one of the best players we’ve ever had, and we’ve had some good ones,” the coach said.

“He’s a student of the game, he trains hard, works hard in the weight room. He worked with the track team to increase his speed. He lives and breathes football. It’s the only sport he plays.”

Davis and his Middletown teammates might not be done after this weekend. If the Mustangs can beat Salesian, they stand a good chance of being selected to represent the North in the Division 4 state title game in Carson. That would be an important achievement for Foltmer, who is nearing the end of his coaching run.

“I probably have five years left before I retire,” he said.

“This could be the last real shot at a title. We’ve been playing it game by game, and I guess we just know it’s a great opportunity for us.
“We’ve been practicing until it gets dark, then we turn the lights on and watch 90 minutes of film every night. The kids are putting in their time. Whatever happens Saturday, it won’t be for lack of preparation.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.