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St. Vincent breaks away from St. Helena to win North Coast Section Division 7 football championship

Coach Trent Herzog didn’t think it would ever happen after he was pushed out at Casa Grande.

But inspired, he started over, across town at St. Vincent de Paul High School, and brought a team from the bottom to top in a few years’ time, and now has the section title banner he long desired in a place that he's more than welcomed - he’s family, with multiple Gatorade christenings to show for it this season - and maybe a few more to come.

The Mustangs used a big third quarter, coupled with a Saints turnover that all but eroded St. Helena’s potential momentum, to pull away for a 54-32 victory in the North Coast Section Division 7 title game on Saturday night at Petaluma High, sending them to their first CIF state bowl game appearance in school history and earning the school its fifth football section title.

“I’ve been in this game three times,” Herzog said. “This is the fourth time. I’ve been in it twice as an assistant coach … and I was in it as a head coach in 2013. Those teams I was a part of were great teams, but we never found a way to win this game.

“We found a way. We found a way.”

The path to the section title included big nights from Kai Hall and Dante Antonini.

Hall, who finished with 16 carries for 93 yards and two touchdowns, tweaked his ankle on a goal-line play in the third quarter that left most of the stadium silent until he jogged to the sideline. Both Hall and Herzog believe the ankle will be fine - he’s battled through a torn labrum all season, which Herzog said will be repaired in the offseason.

“He’s unique,” said Herzog, who compared Hall’s running style to legendary Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders. “He’s one of a kind. I’ve never had a back like him. I truly believe he’s the best back in the area.”

Antonini finished with seven carries for 89 yards, including a walk-off 42-yard touchdown run in the final two minutes.

“Dante’s a kid that can play seven or eight positions,” Herzog said. “Not come off the field, tough, physical, loves the game. He sealed it right there with that long run at the end.”

Antonini has had Herzog as coach since his freshman year.

“It’s really been a blessing. He’s a great person and he helps all the players a lot more than just football,” Antonini said of his coach. “He teaches us life lessons and it’s always more than the game with him. That’s something you can appreciate in a coach because there’s not too many that are like that.

“He’s definitely a great guy and the best coach I’ve ever had.”

It wasn’t as easy as the final score showed for St. Vincent (12-1), which allowed several big plays to St. Helena in the first half that kept the Saints competitive until early in the third quarter.

St. Helena received the opening kickoff, but it was muffed by Clayton Crean at the 15 and recovered by Mustangs defensive back Malcom Rooks at the Saints’ 20.

Despite the excellent field position, the Saints held the Mustangs to a three-and-out, and St. Vincent settled for a Gavin Tank Crestetto 32-yard field goal.

The Saints were forced to punt on their first offensive possession. St. Vincent turned that around into a 11-play, 86-yard drive capped by a Hall’s 11-yard TD to make it 10-0 near the end of the first.

St. Helena finally found a rhythm on its second offensive possession of the half that was capped by a 7-yard Harrison Ronayne touchdown run to make it 10-6.

Then things got interesting.

The Mustangs drove 60 yards in three plays, capped by a Hall 27-yard touchdown run. That made it 17-6.

On the second play of the ensuing drive, St. Helena’s Ivan Robledo scampered, shimmied and tumbled 66 yards to the St. Vincent 17.

He ran for 13 more yards on the drive for the touchdown, too, closing the game to a 17-12 deficit for the Saints.

St. Vincent then ran a seven-minute-plus drive, capped by a Jaret Bosarge 12-yard TD run, that kicked the Mustangs’ advantage back up to 11 points.

The Saints then saw Robledo heave a prayer to Charlie Knight, who jumped up and caught it for a 56-yard TD to make it a 5-point game at the half.

But the big plays finally ran out in the third quarter.

After the Mustangs drove down on their opening drive of the second half and finished with an exclamation-point pass from Jaret Bosarge to Dante Antonini to turn a one-possession game back into a two-touchdown contest, the Saints started marching back down the field again.

The first play of its ensuing drive was a solid 12-yard run by Robledo, who finished with 131 yards rushing, but the second play would be the beginning of the end.

A St. Helena fumble was recovered by Liam O’Hare at about the 50 and returned to the Saints’ 12. Three plays later, Rooks rushed it in from one yard out to give St. Vincent an all-but-insurmountable three-touchdown lead.

Saints coach Ian MacMillan acknowledged the Mustangs’ physicality at the line of scrimmage.

“They got a good push on us up front, and caused us a couple of problems, especially offensively,” MacMillan said. “Defensively, they were holding us down.”

The Mustangs will find out their CIF state playoff destiny on Sunday. Hall said he didn’t think about winning a state title when he first came to St. Vincent, but understands the opportunity at hand and the chance to give Herzog a landmark trophy he’s long sought.

“He just loves our team so much so I feel like before our seniors leave, before I leave next year, we owe him the world and owe him this championship,” Hall said. “Hopefully we can get him a state championship for the first time ever and make him proud and make us a team to remember.”

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