In a conference in which every single team can call itself a playoff contender, every little edge is important. As the St. Paul football team prepares to play what may be its final season in the Tri-River Conference, the Buckaroos will look to their stable of running backs and receivers to lead the way for the 2017-2018 season.
St. Paul enters the season returning nearly every significant contributor on offense from last season, giving the Bucks the potential to be a scoring juggernaut this season. St. Paul got a sneak preview Friday at a jamboree hosted by North Marion High School, as senior quarterback Holden Smith completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Jaidyn Jackson on the team's first play from scrimmage.
"Our running backs, quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends — we have experience with our skill guys and they were able to do some positives," coach Tony Smith said.
Of course the only significant skill player to graduate last season was also the team's most explosive and reliable athlete, all-state running back and defensive back Fernando Dela Cerda. The diminutive back was one of the top offensive playmakers in the Tri-River Conference last year, which is notable in a league that sent every team to the playoffs, fielded half of the quarterfinalists and produced the 2016 champion in Regis.
Dela Cerda was responsible for more than half of the team's offensive production, rushing for 1,506 yards and 10 touchdowns last year.
"It's hard to replace a kid like Fernando," Smith said. "He did an outstanding job. Never missed a play, from start to finish the entire season."
Fortunately for the Bucks, all-state junior Justin Herberger is waiting in the wings to carry on St. Paul's tradition of churning out top-tier running backs. Although he doesn't match the speed and agility of Dela Cerda, Herberger is more physically dominant and led the team with 11 touchdowns last year. Herberger was the team's second-leading rusher last year with 587 yards on 89 carries, garnering second team honors at the position in the conference. Backing Herberger up will be sophomore Saul Martinez and Francisco Vargas, giving the Bucks three effective options to replace Dela Cerda's production.
Herberger made his biggest impact on the other side of the ball, leading the Bucks with a team-high 77 tackles to earn second team all-state recognition. Along with Martinez, Alex Dela Cerda and Campbell Smith — the Bucks bring back their top four leading tacklers from last season.
"Those guys are, for the most part, back from last year and playing at a higher level than they were at this point last year," Smith said. "So I think that's a real positive thing."
In the passing game, the Bucks feature Smith's son, Holden, at quarterback, who also was named the top 2A punter in the state as a junior. With the return of all-conference receiver Jaidyn Jackson and all-state tight end Campbell Smith — the team's leading receivers last season — the Bucks can air it out when teams opt to stack the box against Herberger, Martinez and Vargas.
Of course St. Paul still has to contend with the best conference in the state, if only for one more season. But Coach Smith isn't concerned about where the Bucks will play next year, particularly when the decision whether St. Paul will be a 2A or 1A school will not be decided until October.
"That's not a done deal," he said. "They haven't made a decision. Things have changed late, so you never know."
Regardless of where the team will play in 2018, Smith and the Bucks will continue to employ the same mentality that has made them a solid program at the 2A level over the past three seasons.
"You try to improve on a daily basis, don't look too far ahead, some of those cliché things," Tony Smith said. "I think those are all things that have allowed us to have the success that we've had at the 2A level, and I don't think that changes even if this is our last year."
The Bucks can't look too far ahead, not with the 2015 state champion Heppner Mustangs looming on the schedule to open the season on the road Friday, followed by the team's home opener Sept. 8 against the Monroe Dragons.