Rancho Cotate outlasts Northgate to reach NCS title game
Luque sets single-game record with 272 rushing yards in 30-17 RC victory
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The way Rancho Cotate High's football team disposed of Walnut Creek's Northgate High, 30-17, on Saturday night in the North Coast Section Div. II semifinal reminded old-school boxing fans of how great heavyweight champion Larry Holmes would do away with pesky but inferior opponents.

After probing and measuring his foe and delivering punishing body blows for a period of time, Holmes would move in for the kill by delivering a staggering left jab, followed by a pulverizing overhand right, and the issue would be settled.

Against Northgate, Rancho Cotate's left jab came in the form of a touchdown-saving Joshua Belda interception - his second of the night - at the 1 yard line in the third quarter with the Cougars leading 17-10. The telling right came two plays later when Jalon Luque burst up the middle, sprinting 98 yards for a touchdown and a 23-10 Cougars lead with 5 minutes, 10 seconds left in the third quarter. It broke the Broncos' heart, spirit and will.

"I paused for a second, to make sure the linebacker slid over and I busted up the gut," Luque said. "I slipped the tackle...I thought I was going to be tackled, but I just broke it and then I was gone."

For good measure, Luque rumbled into the end zone from 31 yards out with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter to up the Cougars' lead to 30-10.

Rancho Cotate's victory puts them in the NCS Div. II final for the second time in three years. Two years ago, the Cougars lost, 40-37, to Concord. Friday, the Cougars, the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, will face top-seeded Clayton Valley of Concord at Diablo Valley College in Concord at 7 p.m.

Clayton Valley reached the NCS championship game by overpowering Concord, the team which knocked the Cougars out of the playoffs the past two seasons, 49-22. The winner of Friday's game likely will face the winner of the Sac-Joaquin Section Div. III championship between Oakdale and Vista del Lago of Folsom in a regional bowl game. Winners of the Northern California regional bowl games will travel south to Carson for the state bowl games against foes from Southern California.

It would be easy to build the narrative of the Cougars' victory solely around another astonishing performance by Luque, who ran for 272 yards on 19 carries. But to do so would diminish the performance of Belda, whose first interception thwarted the Broncos' opening drive of the second half and set up Rancho Cotate's go-ahead touchdown as the score was tied 10-10. It also would overshadow the Cougars' effort on defense, which held the Broncos scoreless in the second half until 47 seconds remained in the game.

Belda's first pick gave the Cougars possession at their 39. Five plays later, receiver Carlos Soto gathered in a perfect pass in the end zone from quarterback Michael Courchaine on a fade pattern from 25 yards out. Rodrigo Perez's kick increased the Cougars' lead to 17-10.

Conventional wisdom would lead Belda to simply knock the ball down rather than make his second interception of the game, given it was on a fourth-down play from the 34. Knocking the ball down would have given the Cougars possession on the 34 rather than the 1. But then again, the crowd at Cougar Stadium would not have been electrified by Luque.

"Hey man, you've got to get those stats up," Belda joked. "When I went back to the sidelines, the coaches told me that was the turning point in the game and said 'good job.' They said Jalon was going to score, and I knew it because we've got a good offense."

Rancho Cotate got on the scoreboard early in the first quarter when fullback Fono Misi bulled into the end zone from 6 yards out. Perez's kick for the extra point gave the Cougars a 7-0 lead. A Cougars' recovery of a muffed punt set up the score.

The Broncos tied the game at 7-7 with 10:05 left in the second quarter when Fisi Tavake blasted into the end zone from 4 yards out capping a 17-play 69-yard drive.

The teams traded field goals by Perez and Sam Dale to make the score 10-10 at halftime.


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