Benefield: End of a storied rivalry for St. Vincent, Tomales football programs

St. Vincent's DB Justin Ferrua recovers a fumble from the Tomales offense including, from left, Ravi Scholze, Cory Griffen, Kevin Ballatore and Josh Giammona in a 2000 game. (PD File, 2000)

St. Vincent’s DB Justin Ferrua recovers a fumble from the Tomales offense including, from left, Ravi Scholze, Cory Griffen, Kevin Ballatore and Josh Giammona in a 2000 game. (PD File, 2000)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When three small-school football programs decided last month to abandon traditional 11-man football in favor of the 8-man formula that allows ever-smaller schools to compete, the move imploded the NCL II and with it, sunk the decades-old rivalry between two long-standing football programs.

Gridiron watchers say the St. Vincent Mustangs-Tomales Braves rivalry is the longest continuing in North Bay football.

But when the season begins next fall, the Mustangs will play squads from the Bay Football League while the Braves will play eight-man ball against the likes of Mendocino, Point Arena and Calistoga.

The end of the rivalry is collateral damage from the move made to accommodate schools’ shrinking enrollment and increasing difficulty to field full football squads.

The contests between the Mustangs and Braves go back to when the Tomales campus was downtown and the field was a slice of land on a bluff overlooking what used to be a port.

The first contest between the two schools was in the early ’50s, back when the Braves had to squeeze in practice time between school and looming ranch chores.

“That was our only chance to play,” said Mervyn Zimmerman, quarterback and class of ’47 Tomales grad. “We didn’t have any practice time. You just had your hour of athletics and that meant you had to change your clothes and practice and learn some plays and then shower. The kids had to get home and work. Most of them were ranch people and they had to get home and do their chores.”

“We were the eggs, they were the cows,” recalled St. Vincent grad Lee Torliatt. Torliatt recalled traveling by private car to Tomales’ campus in the late ’40s, before the football rivalry launched, and just wanting to get out alive.

“I was more scared of the fog than I was of the team,” he said. “It was really socked in. We just tried to get the hell out of the fog.”

More dangerous than the fog? The Braves’ field.

Those early gridiron battles between the Mustangs and the Braves were fought on a (sorta) flat stretch of land with nary a blade of grass. Carved out of a stretch of rock that dropped precipitously off on one side of the field, the playing surface was about 110 yards, instead of the regulation 120 yards. That meant extra points and field goals could only be tried on one set of goal posts for fear of losing the ball forever.

I was talking to Mervyn Zimmerman’s wife, Mary (Tomales class of ’49), about the field when I heard Mervyn in the background calling out, “Damn hard!”

Sandstone hard.
“In 1945 or 1946, I guess, we put dirt on the sandstone and that softened it,” Mervyn Zimmerman said.

That wasn’t the only hard part about the field.

Run out of the end zone, you might get the sharp points of a barbed wire fence. But that was better than running over the ledge and into the abyss. Probably.

“The football field was absolutely notorious,” said Ginny Magan, the curator of the Tomales History Center, which occupies what was once the Tomales High School auditorium before the new campus was built up the hill on the east side of town. “It’s not a precipitous cliff but it does drop off pretty fast.”

In the 1960s, the new campus was built on the hill above town.

Ed Conroy, Rancho Cotate’s longtime football coach, graduated from St. Vincent in 1976. A running back and defensive back, he recalls being hurt in a season finale against the Braves for a game that held more weight than most.

“I really feel like if you won that game you were successful,” he said. “I think that has always been, that was our big rival.”

In recent memory, the St. Vincent vs. Tomales rivalry has become entrenched

I attended Tomales’ home opener this season and veteran Braves coach Leon Feliciano nearly (albeit politely) uninvited me. If I was going to cover a Tomales game, make sure it’s the one against St. Vincent, he said.

“It’s kind of isolated so the lights stand out, you get the fog and the mist comes in … when you catch it just right, like when we play St. Vincent or Calistoga, it’s awesome,” Feliciano said then.

The rivalry is special, he said. It makes Friday night more fun. Tomales’ move to eight-man football puts an end to it.
“It destroys it. It ends it,” he said. “That is the downside.”

Feliciano, who led the Braves for 19 seasons before retiring from coaching at the end of this season, said the move to an eight-man league makes sense for Tomales because it has become difficult to field an 11-man squad in recent years. But the end of the clash between the Braves and the Mustangs stings.

Veteran St. Vincent head coach Gary Galloway agreed.

“Their old timers, our old timers, it’s still a big deal,” he said. “I think in the old days, a lot of money went back and forth.”

“We’ve had some amazing games,” he said.

One epic showdown was a high-scoring duel in 1997. The Mustangs scored six touchdowns but failed to convert five of six point-after attempts. The Braves, always a running team, had scored five touchdowns but converted all five two-point conversion tries to grab a one-point win.

There have been ties (0-0 in 1955) and blowouts, but mostly tight contests. The Mustangs lead the series 35-22-3, according to Gary von Raesfeld, a St. Vincent coach and athletic historian.

Galloway, who has led the Mustangs for 35 years, said the tone at the practice field changes on the week they play Tomales. Something unspoken happens.

“Tomales week was a whole different week in our practice,” he said.

“It would get amped up a little bit. They’re going, ‘Galloways’s all fired up this week.’ The kids pick up on that, too.’ ”

Next year the Mustangs will have to get amped up about someone else.

“I’m going to miss them,” Galloway said.

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

BY THE NUMBERS

St. Vincent and Tomales played continuously since 1967, making this the longest active football rivalry in the Redwood Empire.

Most points in a game — 83 (1969, Tomales 42, St. Vincent 41)

Fewest points in a game — 0 (1955, scoreless tie)

Shutouts by team — St. Vincent 10, Tomales 4

Last St. Vincent shutout — 34-0 (2012)

Biggest St. Vincent victory margin — 44-0 (2000)

Last Tomales shutout — 1-0 (1991, Tomales declared a winner by forfeit)

Biggest Tomales victory margin — 34-6 (1999).

— Gary von Raesfeld