NCS football: Saints come up just short

St. Helena's Kyle Lemieux, center, protects his quarterback Jack Preston from pressure from Salesian's Donovan Hedrick during the game held at Alhambra High School in Martinez, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

St. Helena’s Kyle Lemieux, center, protects his quarterback Jack Preston from pressure from Salesian’s Donovan Hedrick during the game held at Alhambra High School in Martinez, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

MARTINEZ — The St. Helena fans stood in unison to cheer their team as it left the field at Alhambra High. Players hugged and smiled. The Saints had lost 14-7 to Salesian in the North Coast Section Division 5 championship game on Friday night, but you could hardly tell by surveying the scene.

What was coach Brandon Farrell thinking of his 12-2 team?

“Just look. Nobody’s left,” Farrell said, waving his arm toward the parents and grandparents and kid siblings who were mingling on the field. “It’s a pretty proud moment, really, when you think about it. When you have a program that you’ve seen develop over the course of the years. And there are so many people involved. … I mean, there’s an enormous amount of time that goes into being good.”

St. Helena was a heavy underdog against top seed Salesian, and wound up just a touchdown short. The game was in doubt until 3:12 remained, when senior Dominic Parella covered an onside kick for the Pride, denting the Saints’ hopes of a comeback.

Even after that St. Helena thought it might get the ball back for a final attack, but Salesian picked up a couple first downs to put the game away.

It was a well-played game, with no turnovers and not a lot of penalties, and Pride coach Chad Nightingale had to tip his cap to the kids from St. Helena.

“That coaching staff had these kids so well prepared,” Nightingale said after leading Salesian to its fourth section title in five years. “Because there are things we did well all year that we did not do well tonight. … And don’t get me wrong, you want to win. But damn it, those kids played well.”

(See more photos from the game)

Salesian is known for its speed at the skill positions. What must have shocked the Saints was the size of the Pride line. It was massive on both sides of the ball.

And yet for almost the entire first half, St. Helena played Salesian to a standstill. Neither team was finding any big plays in the running game. And while Saints quarterback Jack Preston wasn’t getting much time to throw, his counterpart, Pride sophomore Jaylen Tregle, was uncharacteristically overthrowing receivers.

There was no score when Salesian got the ball at its own 4-yard line 5:42 before halftime. And after picking up a first down, the Pride soon faced fourth-and-1 at their own 25-yard line. Nightingale gambled, and Tregle picked up the first down on a quarterback sneak. And then he finally found his touch.

Up to that point, Tregle had completed 1 of 9 passes for 3 yards. But he found Dewayne Dixon downfield for a 34-yard connection, and wound up hitting his next four attempts to close out the half. The last of those was a 1-yard scoring toss to Alex Hutchinson with just 23 seconds on the clock.

The 96-yard drive certainly was a game-changer, but St. Helena didn’t fold.

Salesian moved the ball much more efficiently after halftime behind the running of the elusive Charles Hillary (120 yards on 26 carries) and the bigger Dalonnie Carter (50 yards), and reached Saints territory every time it had the ball in the second half. But only one of those possession resulted in points. That was in the third quarter when a 36-yard pass from Tregle to Prentiss Reid set up Charles Hillary’s 9-yard touchdown run.

“We actually had them figured out for a while,” Farrell said. “And then in the second half they kind of went to that lead power game, and they started putting a few more run chunks at us.”

St. Helena, meanwhile, was going nowhere. Salesian still led 14-0 when the Saints got the ball with 6:34 left in the game.

That’s when the team from Napa Valley found its resolve. St. Helena converted a fourth-and-6 play on a pass from Preston to Robert Archer, and a third-and-11 play on Preston’s completion to Davon Browne, with a personal foul on Salesian tacked on at the end.

The big play came with St. Helena facing fourth-and-goal from the Pride 9. Preston dropped back but his blocking was immediately decimated. The senior rolled left and just before he got to the sideline he turned to throw and left himself completely vulnerable. A Salesian defender drilled Preston in the head, sending him flying out of bounds.

“When I hit the ground, the first thing I was thinking is, (A) did we get a penalty, so did we get a first down? And (B) I feel pretty good, I think I can go back in next play,” Preston said.

The hit drew a flag and gave the Saints an automatic first down. Preston showed his toughness — symbolized his team’s toughness — by re-entering the game after one play off and scoring on a 4-yard keeper to cut Salesian’s lead to 14-7.

Alas, St. Helena wouldn’t get any closer.

The Saints would not win their first NCS championship since 1977. But they did set a school record for wins in a season, and even Friday they were able to tally the positives of a campaign that ended with a loss.

“I’ll remember all the heights we’ve reached, all the goals we’ve accomplished,” Preston said. “I mean, in all of our big games this year we’re the underdog, and we were down at halftime. And we’ve been able to work together as a team and overcome those deficits. We weren’t able to do it here, but — and Coach Farrell said this at halftime — it wasn’t about our effort.

“And that’s why it’s frustrating, but we won’t have as many regrets as we would have in other situations, because we know we left it out on the line.”