Overcoming injuries, check. Overcoming wind and fog, check. The Cougars added a rainstorm to their list of achievements. While the Sierra High School Timberwolves struggled with the rainy conditions, the Rancho Cotate Cougars roared behind their defense and running game en route to a 10-0 victory in the CIF 3A NorCal Championships. With the win, the Cougars will go on to the state finals next week and will play Bakersfield Christian.
The game was played during an epic downpour, which made it hard for both offenses to move the ball. Knowing the Cougars and what they have gone through this season, the rain was nothing for them.
They put together a drive at the end of the half, aided by a 15-yard late hit on quarterback Jared Stocker, which ended with a 38-yard Alex Sandoval field goal. This field goal was described by the NFHS broadcasting team as one of the best kicks they’ve ever seen.
After that the Cougars’ defense took over, forcing five Timberwolves turnovers, then Rasheed Rankin closed the deal with a 40-yard run to the 2-yard line which led to Stocker scoring the next play.
The Cougars, like other victorious teams Friday night, engaged in slip ‘n’ slide activities after the game was over and basked in the glory of being one game away from history.
Every team who reaches the championship has a story of how they got there. It could be elite offense, defense or both. In the case of the Cougars it was the gut check they went through during halftime of the Windsor Jaguars game.
Coming into the Windsor game the Cougars had lost two games in a row and were going downhill fast. The Cougars were down 14-7 at halftime and were not a team. The players were blaming one another instead of taking blame themselves, the offense couldn’t score, and the defense showed visible frustration. Head Coach Gehrig Hotaling and Rankin credit halftime of that game as the turning point of the season.
“We were dead in the water,” Hotaling said. “We were playing like individuals, instead of a team. Everybody was pointing fingers at each other.”
Though the Cougars were struggling, they pulled themselves together at halftime and have gone on an 8-game winning streak.
Rankin agreed with Coach Hotaling and said if someone would have told him during that game against Windsor that the Cougars would be Northern California champions he would have called them crazy.
“I wouldn’t have believed them. We started off pretty rough,” Rankin said. “Coaches gave us a good yelling against Windsor and it kind of woke us up.”
Whatever the message or words at halftime, the Cougars have been a different team the last eight games and enter next Saturday with an opportunity to win the state championship.
Another story for the Cougars has been the unsung heroes, the players who are new or in the case of kicker and safety, Alex Sandoval, someone who had never played the sport until this season.
Sandoval has already been profiled, but it’s easy to come back to him considering the impact he had on Saturday night’s game.
For community members who didn’t have the opportunity to watch the game, all you need to know is that it was nasty outside. Playing football in a rainstorm is not particularly enjoyable. The first half was an example of why playing in the rain stinks. Players for both teams were unable to find their footing, quarterbacks couldn’t grab the ball and passing was almost impossible.
“It was just the luck of the ball,” Rankin said. “It’s wet, we both had turnovers and they fortunately had more than we did. We practiced on grass all week long just to get used to this, but it still didn’t help that much.”
Putting things into perspective, here are some of the numbers from Saturday night.
Stocker had just one completion on the night for 8 yards. There were a combined 10 fumbles between the two teams and running backs and receivers slipping with no one around them. The fact the Cougars left the game injury free is a gift in itself.
Football players are used to playing in the rain and so are soccer players. Sandoval is a soccer player, so he was right at home with the nasty conditions.
“Unbelievable,” Hotaling said. “Alex is a stud soccer player; he’s got the leg. We were just hoping his plant leg wouldn’t slip, and it didn’t, and he’s clutch.”
Hotaling said that play sent the Cougars into halftime with plenty of momentum. He was right, that was all the Cougars needed. The defense pitched their second consecutive shutout and held Sierra High School without a first down in the first half.
Comparing Sandoval’s 37-yard field goal to the kicker for Sierra was night and day. Sandoval made his with five yards to spare, while the Timberwolves kicker was five yards short from 31 yards away. This was how nasty the weather was and how impressive Sandoval’s kick was.
The story of the game was the play in the trenches. Most of the time whichever team wins the battle of the trenches will win the football game. The Cougars, like most games this season, won the battle of the trenches. The defensive line was dominate against the Timberwolves triple option offense and the Cougars offensive line found enough push to put together a game clinching drive in the fourth quarter. This 10 play 39-yard drive, after a Timberwolves fumble was an example of how the Cougars wear teams down. This drive was just Rankin and Jayden Herrera playing power football behind the big boys up front.
“We lost some fumbles, but they did as well, so they just offset each other,” Hotaling said. “It came down to the trenches, and I think we won the trenches.”
Besides Rankin, the other star for the Cougars was Dimitri Johnson. Johnson caught the only pass completion of the game and had the game clinching interception. Johnson is another underrated performer for the Cougars. He plays linebacker right beside Mihalis Santorineos and has on occasion been used as a receiver for the Cougars on screen passes.
Johnson seemed to be the only player who was able to catch the ball Sat. night. The Cougars normal wide receivers and Stocker weren’t able to get on the same page, mostly because of the weather being so nasty. In big games, someone needs to step up and Johnson was the player who stepped up for the Cougars on a night when they needed him.
The Cougars have one more game left on their schedule, against Bakersfield Christian High School for the State Championship. This is a big moment for not only the Cougars, but for the city of Rohnert Park. The Cougars will be hosting the game, which is Sat. and starts at 6 p.m. For those community members who have followed the team all year, or those who haven’t had the opportunity to support the boys, this is the game to do it.
It’s been an incredible season for the Cougars and capping it off with a state championship will be worth it for the seniors who have felt so much heartbreak throughout the last couple of years. Regardless of how this game goes, the Cougars and the community have lots to be proud of.