First and 10: No. 1 Highlanders’ late rally falls short against Saints

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Photos by Phillip Brents Christian Washington racked up 328 all-purpose yards for the Helix Highlanders in last Friday’s 21-13 season opening loss.

High school football returned to Helix Charter High School last Friday with about 200 fans in the stands at Jim Arnaiz Field to cheer on players from the host Highlanders and St. Augustine Saints.

The teams picked up right from where they left in the semifinals of the 2019 San Diego Section Open Division playoffs.

The Highlanders won that matchup, 12-7, to advance to the division championship game where they subsequently defeated Carlsbad, 28-21, to claim the division title to advance to the Southern California regional playoffs (finishing with an overall 11-2 record). The playoff loss ended the season for the Saints, who had defeated Helix, 21-20, in overtime to capture the 2018 Division I championship.

It was a new beginning for both teams amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as the 2020 high school football season was delayed from August to December, then from January to March.

Players and coaches were grateful finally to be back on the field. Tickets were allocated to four household members from each team and, from their boisterous cheering, it was obvious they were happy to see their loved ones back in action.

It only took 14 seconds for the cheering to start as Christian Washington returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to give Helix a quick 7-0 lead.

The opening minutes were a bit sloppy on both sides of the line of scrimmage, but the game started to settle down and the Saints matched the Highlanders with a score on a 50-yard bomb from senior quarterback Richard Colmenero III to junior receiver/defensive back Ayo Shotomide with 4:12 to play in the first quarter.

The hosts blocked the extra-point attempt to maintain a narrow 7-6 lead on the scoreboard on a chilly night that would see the thermometer drop to 48 degrees by the end of the contest pitting top 10 teams (Helix was the preseason No. 1 pick while St. Augustine was No. 5).

Perhaps predictably, both teams revved up their running games and defensive play proved critical to steer the game’s outcome.

Washington totaled 174 yards in the game — 145 rushing yards and 29 receiving yards — while scoring twice for the Scotties. He totaled 328 all-purpose yards by tacking on 154 yards on two kickoff returns.

While the visitors had trouble containing the slippery Helix junior standout, the Saints did manage to pile up 64 yards in losses in other areas to contain the explosive Highlander offense.

Helix freshman quarterback Ryland Jessee completed five of 16 passing attempts for 61 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He had seven carries for minus-29 yards, however.

After a slow start, St. Augustine (1-0) built a 21-7 lead by the end of third quarter and held off a determined fourth-quarter rally by the hosts to plant their first victory of the season.

Isaiah Pressley did most of the ball-carrying for the Saints, though he did not score in the game.

St. Augustine took a 14-7 lead on a four-yard interception return by senior Malcolm Williams and ensuing two-point conversion with 1:32 left in the first half. Colmenero scored on a quarterback sneak with 2:52 remaining in the third quarter to boost the visitors to a two-touchdown lead.

They needed every point to secure the season opening win.

Shotomide stalled a promising Helix drive with an interception in the end zone one minute after the Saints’ third touchdown in the game.

But the Highlanders (0-1) continued to push to the delight of the home fans.

Washington showed his versatility by catching an 18-yard scoring pass from Jessee with 3:45 left in regulation play. The extra point was no-good, however, as St. Augustine clung to a 21-13 lead.

A timely showing of defense finally won the game for the Saints. The Highlanders got the ball back with 49.5 seconds to play at their own 10-yard line. A sack left Jessee & Co. at the five-yard line with 36.5 seconds left.

But the hosts didn’t quit. Jessee completed a third-and-15 pass to the 35-yard line. Another pass completion and penalty moved the ball to midfield before time expired.

Colmenero, who has committed to New Mexico Highlands University, appeared in 11 games during the 2019 season for St. Augustine, passing for 1,298 yards with 15 touchdowns in his first year with the Saints.

He racked up impressive numbers while playing his sophomore season at Eastlake High School with 2,111 passing yards and 24 touchdowns.

Colmenero was obviously elated at handing the Scotties a bit of pay-back for the playoff loss that ended his junior season with the Saints. “It was great to beat a big rival,” he said. “It was a great team win.”

Washington earned honors as the offensive player of the game for the Highlanders while defensive back Joshua Shimko earned honors as the team’s defensive player of the game.

Helix is scheduled to host Mater Dei Catholic (0-0) in a non-league game this Friday while St. Augustine is slated to kick off Western League play with a game at Madison (0-0).

Both contests kick off at 7 p.m.