East County Sports

Stinson’s five TDs lift Highlanders to eighth title

Helix coach Troy Starr lifts the CIF Championship trophy following the Highlanders' win over St. Augustine Saturday night at Devore Stadium. / photo by Christopher Smith



By Jim Lindgren

© East County Sports.com
CHULA VISTA — The two best teams and the two best running backs in the San Diego Section battled for the Open Division championship on Saturday night at Southwestern College’s luxurious Chet DeVore Stadium.

Top-seeded Helix earned the title with a 44-30 victory over No. 2 St. Augustine in front of an electrifying standing-room-only crowd of 10,000, giving TROY STARR his second section title in his final season as head coach of the Highlanders.

“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Helix quarterback MICHAEL AUSTIN said. “It’s something we knew we could do, and we went out and did it.

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Helix’s Nathen Stinson breaks off a long touchdown run. / photo by Christopher Smith.

“Wow! What a game!”


NATE STINSON gave a performance for the ages and might have secured Player of the Year honors over St. Augustine star Elijah Preston.

Stinson, a 5-foot-6, 180-pound dynamo headed to Northern Arizona, scored five touchdowns and had 319 total yards to lead the Scotties (11-1) over the Saints (10-3).

“Great players play great in big games,” Starr said. “He’s the best back I’ve been associated with in 30 years. Just a tremendous player.”

Stinson rushed 19 times for 243 yards and touchdowns of 2, 80, 69 and 52 yards. He caught one pass for a 76-yard touchdown, giving him 32 TDs on the season to go with 1,711 rushing yards in 12 games.

Stinson had scored five TDs in a game against Steele Canyon, but he said, “This is the best game of my whole season.”

Like Stinson, a starter since his sophomore year, Austin had a good game as well, completing 13-of-20 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown without an interception. But he, like everyone, was most impressed with Stinson.

“There’s not enough words to describe Nathen Stinson,” Austin said. “He’s the best running back in San Diego County.”

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Jihad Woods intercepts a pass Saturday night.

The best defense in San Diego County also came up large when it needed to most.

The defense forced five turnovers in the second half. The first two – interceptions by EVAN PERKINS and JIHAD WOODS – led to quick touchdowns by the Highlanders. Then the defense forced a safety when Saints quarterback Rodney Thompson, trying to avoid a sack, was whistled for an intentional grounding penalty from the end zone.

Those three scores coming within a 2:33 stretch midway through the third quarter turned a 21-21 halftime tie into a 37-21 Helix lead.

“Defense wins championships,” Austin said, “and our defense was incredible tonight.”

Preston, a 5-5, 180-pound senior, is second on the all-time section career rushing list behind Royce Freeman of Imperial. Freeman, now a sophomore star for Oregon, had 7,601 yards from 2010-13.

With 156 yards on 28 carries against Helix, Preston finished with 2,245 season yards and 7,197 for his career.

Stinson was aware of the comparisons people were making – two short but fast runners with a penchant for scoring touchdowns, but he wasn’t buying into the hype.

“I just came out here to play,” he said. “We had a good game plan and executed well. It feels great to win the championship, especially in Coach Starr’s last year.”

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Stinson takes another one to the end zone.

The Scotties’ defense had a plan for Preston and kept him in check most of the game. SEFA TAUANU set the tone early, stopping Preston for a 1-yard gain on the Saints’ first play. Preston wound up with only 54 yards on 13 carries in the first half.

Preston scored on a 9-yard run with 2:03 to play in the third quarter and a 27-yard field goal by Liam Gristle at 9:06 of the fourth quarter gave the Saints hope, trailing just 37-30.

Stinson’s fifth touchdown – a 52-yarder on a third-and-1 call – sealed the win with 2:11 to play. The lasting memory of that play included Tauanu and his bountiful head of hair chasing after Stinson for a celebration in the end zone. Meanwhile, Tauanu’s helmet was resting at the line of scrimmage.

“We knew we were going to come in here for a dogfight,” Perkins said. “We just had to execute and finish strong.

“It’s awesome to do it for Coach Starr. We all love him. He’s like a second father to us.”

Starr had to miss a game on Oct. 23 against Valhalla when his wife, Tana Starr, was hospitalized with an undisclosed illness. Just two days prior, he had announced that he would be stepping down as head coach at the end of the season for personal and family reasons.

“That’s one of our biggest motivations, to win for him,” Austin said. “We’re going to try to finish out with a state title too.

“He’s not just a great football coach. He teaches us life lessons. He keeps it real with you. He doesn’t sugar coat anything.”

This was Starr’s second section title in five tries with the Scotties. The first came in 2011 when Helix won its first state title. In eight seasons under Starr, Helix has an 83-17-1 record, including 16-6 in the playoffs and reached at least the semifinals every year.

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Photo by Christopher Smith.

Three times it lost to Oceanside in title games, including a 20-13 defeat in last year’s Open Division final.

“These things (championship games) haven’t been easy,” Starr said. “We’ve had a bunch of them and haven’t always fared so well. We always play Godzilla (Oceanside) at the end.”

With a host of three-year starters, this year’s seniors lost to eventual champ Mission Hills in the semifinals as sophomores and were second to Oceanside last year.

“What made this so special was coming up short the past two years,” senior receiver MEKHI STEVENSON said. “We got what we came for. Finally we won it all.”

Now it’s on the state playoffs. Helix will likely play at Mission Viejo (14-0) on Friday or Saturday in the Southern California Regional championship. The Grizzlies defeated Vista Murrieta 21-14 on Friday for the Southern Section West Valley Division title.

Prior to this weekend, Mission Viejo was ranked sixth in the state, Helix eighth. St. Augustine was ranked 10th in the state. The Saints were playing in their fourth consecutive title game in four different divisions – no school had ever done that – having won the past two seasons in Division II (2013) and then Division I (2014) after losing the Division IV championship in 2012.

St. Augustine quarterback Rodney Thompson had only four rushing touchdowns coming into the final but collected three in the first half to forge the 21-21 tie. The Saints piled up 248 total yards in the first half to 198 for Helix.

On their first possession, the Highlanders used a 13-play, 52-yard drive to go up 7-0 on a 2-yard touchdown by Stinson with 5:56 to play in the first quarter.

Saints tied it on a 42-yard keeper by Thompson at 3:10.

Two plays and 17 seconds later, Stinson took a draw play up the middle and then down the left sideline for an 80-yard score to make it 14-7.

St. Augustine countered with a 13-play, 80-yard drive and then a 7-play, 41-yard drive. Both ended with Thompson scoring on a 3-yard run for a 21-14 St. Augustine lead.

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Helix’s Michael Austin scores on a keeper.

Helix responded with its own 80-yard drive in nine plays, capped by an 8-yard TD run by Austin with 1:09 to play before intermission.

Helix went three-and-out on its first possession of the second half, and a 29-yard punt return by Jordan Brooks gave Saints the ball at the 32-yard line. An interception by Perkins in the end zone thwarted that threat, and the Scotties scored two plays later.

Stinson hauled in a short pass from Austin along the left sideline and burst through a seam for his first touchdown reception of the season, a 76-yarder to make it 28-21.

With St. Augustine driving into Helix territory, Woods picked off a Thompson pass at the 31-yard line.

Next play, Stinson took another draw handoff and raced 69 yards for a 35-21 Helix advantage.

Thompson, a junior, had played a fine game in the first half and wound up with 190 passing yards on 14-of-24 attempts. But in that short third-quarter span, he went interception, interception and then intentional grounding from the end zone for a safety and a 37-21 Helix lead.

The never-say-die Saints, however, refused to fold. Like last year, when they rallied to beat Madison 49-42 with 0:04 to play for the Division I championship, St. Augustine came storming back.

After the safety, St. Augustine punted a free kick from the 20-yard line that Helix fumbled away and Jacob Baker recovered it. The Saints then marched 36 yards in seven plays and pulled within 37-27 after Preston’s 9-yard touchdown run.

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2015 San Diego Section CIF Open Division Champion Helix Highlanders.

Another three-and-out by Helix gave the ball back to St. Augustine, which capitalized with a 27-yard field goal by Gristle for a score of 37-30.

Young’s second fumble recovery of the game came with just under 3:00 to play. EZEKIEL NOA added a third Helix interception inside a minute left, and Helix needed only one play out of victory formation to run out the clock.

Helix finished with 413 total yards. St. Augustine had 468 with Thompson tallying 117 rushing yards.

Stevenson had five catches for 55 yards for Helix. RASHAD SCOTT added three receptions for 20 yards, and Young three for 14.

After a season-opening 23-19 loss to Scottsdale Chaparral, the Highlanders have won 11 in a row.

“It’s a great feeling,” Austin said. “This is definitely what we’ve been working for. What a way to go out.”

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