New St. Scholastica quarterback Giuliano Villalpando was reached by phone Wednesday night when he introduced himself.
“Hi, this (is) Giuliano, but you can call me ‘G,’” Villalpando.
Gee, that’s a heckuva lot easier.
“It makes it easier for me, that’s for sure,” CSS coach Mike Heffernan said, laughing.
Villalpando visited CSS in March and was sold.
“The coaches, the players, I just loved it,” Villalpando said. “It was a place that felt like home, a place I felt like I needed to be at.”
Like home, except with snow.
“I loved the campus,” Villalpando said. “It was my first time seeing real snow, so I loved seeing that.”
Well, he came to the right place.
Villalpando will lead the new-look Saints into their 2021 season, which was supposed to start against Sewanee at 1 p.m. Saturday at Public Schools Stadium. The school canceled the game on Friday, citing COVID protocols.
Villalpando won’t have to go very far if he feels homesick. This year’s St. Scholastica team has a massive class of 58 newcomers, most of them freshmen and including about 15 players from the Lone Star State.
The 5-foot-11, 191-pound Villalpando is athletic and versatile. He was asked what he brings to the quarterback position.
“I bring leadership, and I bring the ability to get the ball into my playmakers’ hands and I also can make some plays,” he said. “I’d just say I’m a playmaker. I try to make the play happen.”
Heffernan is understandably giddy just to be back game planning this week after 2020 was wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heffernan laughed when asked how many hours he was putting in, peanuts on the dollar for his assistants, no doubt.
“You don’t even want to know,” Heffernan said laughing. “It’s probably close to 90 to 100 hours per week. You better love it, or it sure wouldn’t be much fun.”
Besides Villalpando, the Saints return the 6-foot, 222-pound senior Bryceton Butkiewicz, a former Moose Lake-Willow River standout, at running back.
Another senior, Mitchell Adrian, returns at wide receiver after setting a program record with 114 receptions in 2019 while also breaking the program record for career receptions. Freshman Ty Givance (6-1, 161) is expected to make an immediate impact in the receiving corps.
Senior center and three-year starter Ben Plzak (6-0, 290) returns to lead the offensive line.
On the defensive front, CSS returns senior Tandrell Foster (6-3, 247) while adding another Texas product in freshman Richie Rodney (6-0, 247).
Junior Mack Nelson (5-10, 202) leads the linebackers while junior safety Jake Kukowski (6-2, 200) leads the defensive backs. The Saints are excited about their corners, returning sophomore Kevin Taylor Jr. (5-5, 151) while adding Texas newcomer Jalen Davis (6-0, 161).
Butkiewicz, Adrian, Nelson and Kukowski will serve as captains.
“There’s a lot of new faces, but a lot of talent,” Heffernan said. “My goal was to get the program back to where it would need to be, and that started with getting the right kind of numbers. We took a big step forward with this incoming recruiting class.”
St. Scholastica will certainly need numbers as they go from the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference to the much stronger Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. CSS’s first MIAC game is Sept. 25 against Augsburg at Public Schools Stadium.
While the Saints will undoubtedly take some lumps, Heffernan feels this group has potential to be really good if they stick it out, and Villalpando agreed.
Heffernan said four players “duked it out” for the starting quarterback spot, with Villalpando and another true freshman, Byron Bishop, separating themselves midway through camp and Villalpando ultimately getting the starting nod.
“His ability to handle pressure, the ups and downs and ebb and flow of a game, quickly became apparent,” Heffernan said.
One of Heffernan’s first impressions came during a grueling conditioning session on the first day the Saints took the field for preseason camp. While teams often coddle the quarterbacks, understandably so, Villalpando wanted to run with the fastest guys.
“I said G, you didn’t have to do that,” Heffernan recalled. “He said, ‘Coach, if my teammates are expected to do it, I want them to know I’m going to do it right there with them.’ That was a good first step for him. It set the tone.”
While bringing in players from faraway places often raises eyebrows, Villapando comes across as Texas nice and respectful as you can get, politely answering questions with “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”
Former defensive coordinator Mike DuFrane was the first CSS coach to land on Villapando’s radar, and to the Saints’ credit, they stayed locked in, even after Villapando injured his non-throwing shoulder his senior year at Clear Lake High School last fall.
“St. Scholastica reached out to me a lot, always asking how I was doing,” Villapando said. “I just got the feeling like they really wanted me to play here, and even after my injury, they weren’t dissuaded. That was a big thing for me. They never lost interest and they still believed in me to come up here and compete for the job.”
Turns out, it was a job well done.
While the Saints’ perseverance might not pay immediate dividends — their roster is dominated by freshmen — only time will tell which direction the program goes a they venture into this great unknown.
Villapando certainly comes across as one who could lead them there.
“I think we’re just going to go into the games trying to play Saints football. That’s the whole idea,” Villapando said. “We’re not going to take a detour. We’re going to go in and do what we do best. We love competition, and it doesn’t matter who it is on Saturday. We love competing, and with this class, I feel if we all stick together, we’ll definitely be something special.”
This story was updated at 2:04 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 3 to reflect that Saturday's CSS football game has been canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. It was originally posted at 7 a.m.