In a conference in which every single team can call itself a playoff contender, each 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 be looking to their stable of running backs and receivers to lead the way for the 2017-18 season.
St. Paul enters the season returning nearly every single significant contributor on offense last season, giving the Buckaroos the potential to be a scoring juggernaut this season. The Bucks got a sneak preview of that potential on Friday at the jamboree hosted by North Marion High School when senior quarterback Holden Smith completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Jaidyn Jackson on the team's very 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," head coach Tony Smith said after the jamboree.
Of course the only significant skill player to graduate last season was also the team's most explosive and reliable: All-State running back and defensive back Fernando Dela Cerda. The diminutive back reigned as one of the top offensive playmakers in the Tri-River Conference last year, a considerable feat coming from a league that sent every team to the playoffs, fielded half of the quarterfinalists and yielded the 2016 champions out of 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 counters as a much 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 Tri-River. Backing Herberger up will be sophomore Saul Martinez and Francisco Vargas, giving the Bucks three effective options to replace Dela Cerda's production.
But 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 Coach Smith's son Holden Smith, who also was named the top 2A punter in the state last year. 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 will be able to air it out with impunity 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 Smith isn't concerned about where the Bucks will play next year, particularly when the decision on whether St. Paul will be a 2A or 1A school will not be decided until October.
"That's not a done deal," Smith 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 and gameplan that made the team a strong 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," 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. St. Paul opened the season on the road against the 2016 state champion Heppner Mustangs, followed by the team's home opener on Friday against the Monroe Dragons.