Benefield: St. Helena faces biggest challenge yet vs. Salesian

St. Helena High School's head football coach Brandon Farrell, fourth from left, talks to his offense during practice at St. Helena High School, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

St. Helena High School’s head football coach Brandon Farrell, fourth from left, talks to his offense during practice at St. Helena High School, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Gary Galloway and Bill Foltmer have led their teams against both the St. Helena Saints and the Salesian College Preparatory Pride this season. And in both games, against both teams, Galloway’s St. Vincent Mustangs and Foltmer’s Middletown squad were handed losses.

So Galloway and Foltmer know of what they speak when they rave about Salesian’s speed and athleticism. But both coaches praised Brandon Farrell’s game plan and his rising Saints.

But the facts remain: Salesian is the No. 1 seed. St. Helena is No. 3. The teams will square off at Alhambra High School Friday night in the NCS Division 5 championship.

Foltmer, whose Mustangs lost to St. Helena 20-13 and 33-7 to the Pride, noted that Salesian beat St. Mary’s 30-23 in Tri-County-Rock league play — the same St. Mary’s squad that is ranked No. 1 in Division 4 and will play for that NCS title this weekend.

Depth?

Consider this: The Pride took home the NCS Division 5 champion’s banner last year under the guidance of a junior quarterback. This season? Pride coach Chad Nightingale liked his chances for a repeat better with sophomore Jaylen Tregle.

“That tells you a little bit about the talent that they have,” Foltmer said.

It’s talent and depth that was molded in the relentless competition of the TCAL, which is loaded with powerful programs.

The Pride won the league title with a 6-0 record, ahead of Division 3, 4 and other D-5 teams.

Consider this: Pinole Valley finished in last place in the TCAL with a 1-5 league record but beat Windsor High 29-14 to reach the Division 2 semifinal. Salesian handled Pinole Valley 35-7.

But it’s worth noting that St. Helena easily handled St. Patrick-St. Vincent, which finished in the middle of the TCAL.

“They are both well coached teams,” Foltmer said. “I have a lot of respect for what Brandon Farrell has done.”

Galloway agreed. The Saints are a well coached team with some talented players, but they will have their hands full with the weapons Salesian brings to bear.

Galloway, whose Mustangs lost to St. Helena 27-21 in early league play and were easily handled 48-6 by Salesian in the second round of the playoffs, said there was nothing he could do in practice to replicate the athleticism and speed of the Pride. “You really can’t simulate it,” he said. “You don’t see it up here.”

But Galloway has been at this awhile. He tried. He crafted drills that worked on pursuit. His guys ran angles to try to minimize the Pride’s speed advantage. But the Mustangs couldn’t make a go of it.

“Even the lineman are athletes,” he said.

And the youthful Tregle, the kid who was an all-league honorable mention selection, got it done for the Pride.

“In our scouting report, we felt it was better for him to throw since he’s so athletic. We didn’t want him scrambling,” Galloway said. “But I’ve got to tell you, I was pretty impressed with his passing.”

And if he isn’t throwing the ball or bolting down field, he’s handing it to all-league first-team running back Charles Hillary.

Salesian has weapons.

But Galloway credited Farrell with grabbing a win from a tough No. 2 seed St. Bernard’s squad at home last week.

“St. Helena had a great game plan coming in against St. Bernard’s,” he said.

And Foltmer said Farrell just might be the guy to break Salesian’s spell.

“He would know how to beat them if he has the horses to do it,” he said of Farrell. “He has done it before.”

By “before” Foltmer means in 2012, when St. Helena beat Salesian 29-25 in the second round of the Division 4 playoffs.

But in high school, a coach typically gets his players for two years. So a two-year-old playoff victory is a lifetime ago.

Thankfully for St. Helena, this lifetime has Jack Preston at the helm.

Preston, a senior, has done it all for the Saints this season at quarterback.

He has thrown for more than 1,500 yards and run for another 1,130. He’s averaging more than seven yards per carry.

This information is not lost on Salesian, a team that likes to play man to man with their corners to increase pressure on the quarterback and running game.

Foltmer said St. Helena’s offensive and defensive line play is key for the Saints.

“But I think one of the strengths of St. Helena is the precision of the line,” he said. “They trap, they get to the right places, they stay on their blocks.”

Giving Preston room to move will be crucial. But even if he’s given time, he’ll have to deal with defensive back Prentiss Reid, the TCAL defensive player of the year who boasts incredible speed.

And the Pride enter this championship game oozing confidence.

The team has bounced from D-4 to D-5 in recent years but dominated the postseason regardless of where they play.

They were Division 5 champs last year, were ousted from D-4 in the second round by St. Helena in 2012, were D-4 champs in 2011 and 2010.

So there is a reason Salesian is ranked No. 1. There is a reason they are favored over the No. 3-seeded Saints.

But tell that to St. Bernard’s, which was sent packing last week by the underdog Saints.

Seeding numbers don’t determine champs. That’s why we play games.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield