Beginning with Analy's semifinal game tonight against top-ranked El Cerrito, five Redwood Empire high school football teams will take the field this weekend in the North Coast Section playoffs.
After the Tigers' game Friday night, Rancho Cotate, Cardinal Newman and St. Helena will play semifinals Saturday. But only Petaluma's St.Vincent de Paul will be playing for a section championship.
Rolling with confidence, the Mustangs must play their best game yet to beat top seed Ferndale in Saturday's Division 5 championship game at Humboldt State in Arcata.
The peaking Mustangs must slow the Wildcats' ground game, limit big plays, and find a way to win the North Coast Section Division 5 championship.
Riding an offense that's been strong in the air and on the ground, St. Vincent has won seven straight. Last week's victory over California School for the Deaf reflected the Mustangs' hot hand — St. Vincent won late after losing big to the same Eagles squad earlier this season.
"The players are loving it. I don't think we ever think we're out of a game," said St. Vincent coach Gary Galloway.
Boasting a strong run game, Ferndale runs a veer offense to put opponents on their heels. The Wildcats figure to use an overall size advantage to push past St. Vincent.
To slow down the 11-1 Wildcats, St. Vincent (10-2) must take away the middle and force runs outside.
"You take that dive away then you have to work on the rest," Galloway said. "They throw well because they run so well. We have to make sure there are no big plays."
Anchoring the Mustangs defense is the line backing trio of Michael Carroll, Zach Stichler and Derek Murphy.
Another playmaker on defense is back Zach Smith, with five interceptions and two fumble recoveries on the season.
Controlling the line on both sides of the ball has been the key to St. Vincent's success. While that becomes more challenging against Ferndale, the Mustangs have numbers and are skilled.
"We got stronger and stronger on the line. The deeper we got, the better we played," Galloway said.
Among the Mustangs grinders up front are Jason Pech, Danny Rodriguez, and Nick Braun.
Scoring has been a St. Vincent strength all season.
Led by passer Mitch Sheppard and leading rusher Murphy, the Mustangs average nearly 400 yards a game with balanced play calling. Sheppard has 25 touchdown tosses. Murphy has 21 touchdowns.
The spread offense could open up more runs for St. Vincent. Arman Yektaparast with 47 catches leads the receivers.
"We throw the ball pretty well. So we spread everyone out. You put a bigger guy out there in space and that evens things out a little bit," Galloway said.
St. Vincent, with four section titles, is seeking the school's first in four seasons. The Mustangs won in Division 5 in 2008.
Ferndale has a dozen section titles, the most recent in the former Class A five years back. Ferndale is back in Division 5 after playing well in Division 4 playoffs. The Wildcats have wins over NCS Division 3 Eureka and Del Norte this season.
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