|Cougars’ (NCS) final destination
Luque sets rushing record as RC beats Northgate to reach Div. II title game
The grueling summer workouts, offseason conditioning and participation in football camps have led Rancho Cotate High’s football team to its final destination – a berth in the North Coast Section Div. II championship game.
The Cougars, unbeaten and seeded second in the playoffs, secured a spot in the final by beating Walnut Creek’s Northgate 30-17 on Nov. 24 at Cougar Stadium, as running back Jalon Luque set a new school single-game rushing record by ripping through the Northgate defense for 272 yards on 19 rushes. They travel to Concord’s Diablo Valley College tonight (Nov. 30) for a matchup with top-seeded Clayton Valley of Concord (11-1). The game kicks off at 7 p.m.
This marks the second time in three seasons the Cougars have advanced to the title game. In 2010, they fell short against Concord, which boasted talented quarterback Ricky Lloyd, who currently is playing at Southern Mississippi University. When the Cougars square off with the Eagles, they will not face a quarterback of that caliber as a passer, but their task is no less daunting.
Clayton Valley, with its grind-it-out rushing attack, features an outstanding running back in senior Joe Protheroe, who has rushed for 2,091 yards and scored 23 touchdowns this season. His brother, junior quarterback Mike Protheroe, guides the Eagles’ deceptive offense and has scored 15 touchdowns. The Eagles rarely throw the football, according to Rancho Cotate coach Ed Conroy. In fact, the Eagles threw the ball only twice in their 49-22 win over Concord.
“They run the Toss offense, which is similar to Northgate,” Conroy said. “It’s the same scheme but a different formation…they run it out of the shotgun. They’re really good at it. They’re very machine-like. I hate defending it because you have to take some guys out of coverage to stop runs. And that may give them some chances to throw the ball downfield.”
The winner of tonight’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 Northern California 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.
Conroy said his players expected to be in this game, although they had no idea they’d be unbeaten coming into this game. If anything, Conroy’s biggest task this week has been keeping his players calm during the week.
“They’re really excited,” Conroy said. “I keep having to remind them they still have school, to stay focused and get their schoolwork done.”
There is a strong possibility it will rain tonight, which gives Conroy great pause. The last time the Cougars played in the rain, they fumbled nine times (losing four) in their second-round playoff game against Las Lomas.
“If we fumble the ball like we did against Las Lomas, we are not going to win the game,” Conroy flatly stated.
The Cougars have practiced in the rain during the week and have tried a variety of leather and rubber balls.
“We’re experimenting…we’ve got to try something,” Conroy said.
The Cougars disposed of Northgate was reminiscent of how former heavyweight boxing 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 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. Making his effort all the more impressive was the fact he was sick during the game and vomited on the sideline four times.
“I have asthma and I had run out of my medication,” Luque said. “I took too much Albuterol (to compensate) and I got sick on the sidelines.”
It would be easy to build the narrative of the Cougars' victory solely around Luque’s performance. 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’s long run.
"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.
NCS football playoffs
No. 2 Rancho Cotate (12-0) vs. Clayton Valley (11-1), 7 p.m. at
Diablo Valley College in Concord.
Other NCS championship games
James Logan vs. De La Salle,
7 p.m. at Dublin High
Marin Catholic vs. El Cerrito,
7 p.m. at Pinole Valley.
San Marin vs. Justin Siena,
7 p.m. at Justin Siena High