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The North Coast Section Division 5 title game Saturday features two football teams that know each other exceedingly well. But it’s a relationship that has rarely favored the Middletown Mustangs.

The Mustangs have played the Salesian College Prep Pride 14 times since 2006. They have only won twice — and they eventually had to forfeit one of those games after unknowingly suiting up an ineligible player.

And yet almost every year since 2006, Middletown coach Bill Foltmer connects with Salesian head coach Chad Nightingale and the two schedule a game — usually the season opener.

I think Foltmer likes the challenge.

“Salesian has been my nemesis,” Foltmer said. “Middletown teams always come out on the short end of the stick.”

Boy, would Foltmer like to break the spell on Saturday.

The No. 5 seed Mustangs head south to Alhambra High in Martinez to play the No. 2-seeded Pride for the Division 5 NCS title after upsetting the top-seeded Kelseyville Knights last weekend in Kelseyville.

After an unprecedented playoff season in which poor air quality from a deadly wildfire in Butte County forced a series of schedule and protocol changes, Middletown (10-3 overall and 5-2 in the North Central I League) is the last Redwood Empire football team standing.

And the Mustangs get rewarded by having to play Salesian. Again.

But one gets the sense that Foltmer doesn’t mind playing the Pride. The Pride are 8-4 overall and 4-1 in the Tri-County-Rock League to finish second behind El Cerrito, the team Cardinal Newman dispatched 38-0 in the Division 3 semifinal last weekend.

But this rivalry is more than records and standings. It’s taken on greater meaning in Middletown, mainly because the Mustangs can’t seem to find the answer to the Pride.

“It’s one of those games where you think you have them and then something happens and they end up winning,” Foltmer said. “My record against Salesian has not been good.”

Foltmer can rattle off the battles between the two teams over the years.

The one that really sticks in his craw? The 14-point lead the Mustangs blew with eight minutes left to play a couple of years back.

“I’m thinking, ‘Hey, we finally got these guys,’” he said.

They lost in overtime.

Even the game they won they lost. The Mustangs beat the Pride 21-14 in the 2013 season opener but had to forfeit the win after discovering school officials hadn’t filed transfer paperwork for a student who attended Middletown, left for a semester and then re-enrolled.

That player, a placekicker, was involved in seven plays in two games, but the Mustangs were given losses for both.

So needless to say, Foltmer is ready make a little history — by beating Salesian, by bringing back to Middletown the first section football championship since 2001. They won the title in 1997, 1999 and 2001 under Foltmer.

“We want to win a section championship. We want that pennant on the wall,” he said.

And as well as he knows Salesian, Foltmer knows the Pride won’t give him any help.

“We’ve got our hands full with that tall order,” he said.

Maybe not so much tall as fast.

“I can simulate Salesian’s plays; I know them well. What I can’t simulate is that speed. The tailback who lines up eight yards behind the line, quick as can be? I can’t simulate that,” he said. “We get them on turf and all of a sudden that kid is a little bit faster.”

But the good news is, despite the craziness of this postseason and the sheer length of the football season in general, the Mustangs are playing well, according to Foltmer.

They knocked off a talented Kelseyville team a week ago. The Knights were the No. 1 seed in the division and had beaten the Mustangs 28-0 on Sept. 21.

“Kelseyville is a very good football team and a very well-coached football team,” he said.

Foltmer has been around long enough and has enough respect for Kelseyville’s program to know that the Mustangs played hot, but they also benefited from a little bit of luck. The injuries that cropped up for the Knights didn’t hit the Mustangs.

“Especially with small schools — hey, one injury and that could be it,” he said. “Because it’s not just losing one kid, it’s like losing four positions.”

The same thing holds true for an off game. A team with a small roster can’t afford anyone having an off game.

“Good teams make you have bad games,” Foltmer said.

Even though the Mustangs are a run-first squad, he knows he needs his quarterback, senior R.H. Hess, to have a standout game.

“When you run, run, run and you do a play-action pass, you have to hit that guy. He’s been very capable the last few games,” Foltmer said.

But the key may be in the legs of senior Drake Harbison.

“We’ve got to get that kid going,” Foltmer said.

Harbison has been gobbling up yards and touchdowns in the later stages of the season, so Foltmer said the Mustangs need to get him rolling early and often against Salesian.

“Get a few good, hard runs early in the game, get that success early, get that confidence going,” he said.

Junior Nico Barrio provides a running and catching counter punch to Harbison’s banging style. Foltmer called him a “breakaway kind of kid.”

Drop in junior fullback Dillon Tingle and the Mustangs have what Foltmer hopes is a three-headed monster. Which means the offensive line will have a job to do Saturday.

“The line knows we have to be able to move the ball,” he said. “We have a fairly young line. Early in the season we struggled a little bit, but as the season has gone on they have gotten better.”

That goes for the whole team. Despite an array of distractions and a ton of unknowns, the Mustangs are focused and practicing hard, Foltmer said.

They too, feel ready to crack the Salesian code, according to their coach.

“Win or lose this game, the last three practices have been great. At least from that perspective, we won’t look back at the woulda, coulda, shoulda,” he said. “I couldn’t ask any more.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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