St. Helena football: A chance of reign

Former St. Helena players, from left, Bob Fellion, Mike Norman, Frank Pina, Dave Wight, Tony Pina, Jeff Warren and Roger Trinchero gather on the football field at St. Helena High School on Thursday. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

Former St. Helena players, from left, Bob Fellion, Mike Norman, Frank Pina, Dave Wight, Tony Pina, Jeff Warren and Roger Trinchero gather on the football field at St. Helena High School on Thursday. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

ST. HELENA — Bob Patterson would like to make one thing perfectly clear: He is not dead.

The St. Helena Saints, the only Redwood Empire team playing football into December, stage their home games at Bob Patterson Memorial Field. But it isn’t named for this Bob Patterson. It is dedicated to one of his old teammates at St. Helena High.

“When I got there, there was another Bob Patterson,” said the Bob Patterson who lives in Napa. “We had to differentiate.

I think he was a year ahead of me in school. We lived on the other side of Angwin, near the Pope Valley store, so Pope Valley Patterson became my name throughout that time. His family owned Central Valley Builders. They still do. So he was Central Valley Patterson.”

Bob “Central Valley” Patterson died in 1998, and the school named its field after him. Bob “Pope Valley” Patterson can’t claim that sort of ownership of the stadium, but he’s no stranger, either. Nor are a lot of other St. Helena players from glorious years past.

When the Saints take the field at Alhambra High on Friday night in the North Coast Section Division 5 championship game, they will be upholding a long and impressive tradition. And many of their predecessors will be there cheering them on against top seed Salesian.

“They just want to see this program be as good as it can be,” St. Helena coach Brandon Farrell said. “They just want to see the kids earn something and go about it the right way.”

The Saints get a lot of support. The community hosts a movable Thursday-night football dinner every week during the season, and the local booster club is active. Sutter Home CEO Roger Trinchero, who played varsity football here in 1962-63, donated $1 million for a new field and bleachers a few years ago.

The team is doing its best to repay the debt. St. Helena, the No. 3 seed, takes a 12-1 record into the title game and has already set a school record for most victories in a season.

“Even though a lot of us are really happy to be here, I don’t think it’s finished,” senior quarterback Jack Preston said. “Going into the season, I remember I was bitter about losing to Healdsburg (in 2013). I never had the chance to beat Middletown, and I wanted to get into a semifinal. Those were my goals in the offseason, and we did all three. But it’s like, all right, we’ve got another game to play.”

Winning football is not a new concept here. Between 1960 and 1965, the St. Helena football team won 46 consecutive games, and went 53 games without a loss, most of it under George Davis, who never lost a game in five years as head coach. There were no NCS playoffs in that era, but those teams will always be remembered as champions. Later, in 1977, the Saints won their first and only section football title.

Back in the early 1960s, when the wine industry was puny and virtually no tourism surrounded it, high school football was a big deal in St. Helena.

“We had much bigger turnouts in our day. There was not much to do up here. It was a town of just 3,000 people,” said Jeffrey Warren, Class of ’66, who is now the Saints’ public address announcer. “People used to say you could drive over Mount St. Helena and it looked like a pearl necklace with all the cars driving up the valley with their headlights.”

In those days, the team played at Carpy Field, next to the elementary school. Players would take a short bus ride from the high school campus.

“After the game when we won, we’d drive down Main Street, and it was this unbelievable Friday night lights scene, with everybody on the sidewalk cheering,” said Patterson, Class of ’62. “It was real community participation. Even as a sophomore I remember playing (JV) games, and it was standing room only. You had to get there early.”

When the 1977 team rolled through the Class A playoffs and beat Ferndale in overtime for the championship, a lot of the early-sixties athletes were there to lend support.

Will Densberger has seen the picture from both angles. As a player on the ’77 title team, he felt the love from the old-timers. Now, as St. Helena JV defensive coordinator, he’s proud to see his friends’ sons and nephews carrying the torch. Densberger and other members of the NCS championship team are connected through a Google Groups site that is dominated by two questions: When is the next fishing trip, and how are the Saints doing?

“We’ve got a steelhead fishing trip scheduled for February,” Densberger said. “We’re making plans for that, and everyone’s posting, asking, ‘Give me a scouting report on St. Bernard or Salesian.’ ”

You can understand their excitement when you realize that after claiming the banner in 1977, St. Helena would not win another playoff football game until 2011. Densberger figures the Saints didn’t even play in the postseason for 30 years.
But Farrell and his assistants have built a strong program, with five playoff appearances and three NCL I titles in the past five years.

Farrell knew nothing about St. Helena when he moved from Illinois to take the coaching job in 2008. But he quickly realized that reality did not equal perception. St. Helena is known as Napa Valley’s ritzy enclave, and home prices bear that out. But the high school is very diverse. Children of winery owners attend, it’s true, but so do the sons and daughters of grape pickers and cellar workers.

The other thing apparent to Farrell was the fervor of the local football fan base.

“They’ll talk to me, tell me how proud they are of the boys and how they’re doing,” Farrell said. “We’ve got fans, literally, I don’t think we should start the game without ’em, because they’re here every day.”

Farrell, who also teaches math at St. Helena High, embraces the past. The program sold at home games includes a section on the school’s football history. Do the kids read it?

“I know I did,” senior lineman Gannon Laidlaw said.

History won’t deliver a victory over favored Salesian (11-1), but it must be nice for the current crop of Saints to know they have so many people in their corner, just as the previous generations appreciate a chance to get together and reconnect over their favorite sport.

“Football is one of those things I don’t think you get too old to be passionate about,” Densberger said. “It’s a great chance to reminisce and tell each other how great we were, and to challenge the young guys to reach that bar.”

Friday, the Saints will be trying their best to do just that.

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

NCS CHAMPIONSHIPS

Friday
Division 5
No. 1 Salesian (11-1) vs. No. 3 St. Helena
(12-1) at Alhambra High
Division 2
No. 1 Clayton Valley Charter (13-0) vs. No. 2 Concord (12-1) at Diablo Valley College
Division 4
No. 1 Saint Mary’s (11-1) vs. No. 2 Justin-Siena (10-3) at De Anza High

Saturday
Division 1
No. 1 De La Salle (12-0) vs. No. 3 Pittsburg (10-2) at Dublin High
Division 3
No. 1 Campolindo (13-0) vs. No. 3 Marin Catholic (10-3) at Diablo Valley College
All games 
at 7 p.m.