For the first 24 minutes it looked like the Cougar’s glass slipper would continue to fit perfectly. Then the third quarter happened. Behind a 28-0 blitz led by the offensive and defensive lines from Bakersfield Christian, the Rancho Cotate Cougars’ Cinderella story came to a crashing end 42-21.
Entering the stadium, it was clear the Cougars had the backing of the entire city of Rohnert Park. The stadium was standing room only ten minutes before kickoff and the crowd was raucous to start the game.
The Cougars fed off the crowd noise for much of the first half. The defense was flying around, and quarterback Jared Stocker was making his signature Houdini plays. Unfortunately, the Cougars ran out of gas and the players were left to be consoled by friends and family as tears streamed down most of their eyes.
The three-and-a-half hours at Cougar Stadium captured the joy and sorrow of high school football. The joy is how a community can rally around a group of 16-18-year olds playing for something bigger than themselves and the sorrow is seeing the result, with the players knowing their best wasn’t good enough.
Head Coach Gehrig Hotaling kept a positive attitude throughout his postgame meeting. His message was simple.
“The only reason for any tears right now is because you are sad football’s over, you guys have nothing to hang your heads about,” Hotaling said. “You won two championships this year, I’m so proud of you guys, you accomplished something that hasn’t been done at this school for 16 or 17 years. You won a section championship, you’re Northern California Champions, that’s a good football team, it was a hard-fought contest.”
This year’s season completed the 17-year circle for Hotaling. He was a player on the 2001 and 2002 teams that won Section Championships. It seems like time is a flat circle for Hotaling considering his journey from player, being the assistant to Ed Conroy and then promoted to head coach all in this short time. His postgame message was spoken like someone with true experience of the moment. Though it was 17 years, he understands that these special seasons don’t come around that often for the Cougars. So instead of being angry with his team, he pounded home the message of how historic this season was and for the players to be proud of themselves.
“I’m tremendously proud of them,” Hotaling said. “It’s tough because only one team gets to win their final game. It’s a little bitter right now, but looking back on it we won a section, a Northern California Championship, no one thought we could do that, and made it further than any Rancho team ever has.”
Hotaling also said he knew the players were torn up after the game, but he also said once they have time to reflect it will be different. He knows as time goes by the players will realize how much they accomplished and how much joy they gave the city of Rohnert Park for the 15 games they played.
To Hotaling, this game didn’t come down to one play or one player messing up. This game simply came down to the Cougars running out of gas and Bakersfield Christian winning the battle of the trenches.
All season the Cougars have been the team wearing down opponents by the fourth quarter. The Cougars, during their 8-game winning streak, used their mental and physical toughness to wear down opponents. In this game the Eagles’ massive offensive and defensive front started imposing their will late in the first half. The Eagles set the tone on their late touchdown drive at the end of the first half and kept the momentum going as the game progressed. The Eagles were able to stop Rasheed Rankin and pressure Stocker, while the Cougars’ usually consistent pass rush was unable to return the favor.
Another theme for the Cougars all season has been resiliency. This team never gives up. Even in the games they’ve lost, the team never stopped playing. This resiliency was why they were in the State Championship game. At some point during the last eight games the Cougars faced adversity or people doubting them and every time this team came up with the goods.
This was because of the play of the Cougar seniors like Rankin, Stocker and Jack Reese. Though this group never won a state championship, Hotaling was not short on praise for them and all the seniors.
“They’re Rancho Cotate legends, their legacy is cemented in stone,” Hotaling said. “I’m sad that they’re sad right now, but I think with time things will get better and the sting will go away and only the good positive memories will remain. I just want them to really be proud of what they accomplished, that’s hard right now, but I know our entire coaching staff and our community’s proud of them.”
Indeed, every senior will go down in history as the first team in the history of Rancho Cotate to play in a state championship game. The Cougars have nothing to be ashamed of, this team was historic, and the 2019 team will be remembered fondly.
One of these seniors praised by Coach Hotaling was Jared Stocker. Stocker, like his teammates, was disappointed to see the season end in the fashion it ended. But, he was happy with his career and the legacy he knows he and his teammates will have.
“We came a long way just building a brotherhood,” Stocker said. “That part was amazing to watch, everyone forming together as one big family throughout the season. It was terrible it had to end this way, no one wanted it to end like this and it’s just unfortunate. We all love each other, we will go to school with each other, we will still put in work on this field. The season’s over but football isn’t for us.”
Stocker seemed to already be a little reflective on the season. He said this is something the players will look back on and realize that they made history and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
While on this topic, Stocker also talked about the family aspect behind the Cougars season. When you spend so much time together in class, practice, film, team dinners, it’s easy to see why the Cougars became so close.
“Throughout the season we just got closer, we bonded, we hung out any chance we got together,” Stocker said. “We had team dinners, had kids stay on the field after practice, before practice we would come out early. We just love being around each other, it’s a family here and it’s a shame we have to leave this behind.”
That last sentence sums up the exact feelings of all the players. The Cougars were obviously playing for history and for the personal glory, but something that goes unnoticed is how much this team means to the City of Rohnert Park. Seeing a standing-room-only stadium, more than 20 alumni on the sideline and community members on the field comforting the players after the game shows what a community looks like.
The Cougars are the only football team in Rohnert Park. Unlike in Santa Rosa who have numerous football teams, the Cougars are the only team in town. Rohnert Park has very much a Texas feel to it regarding high school football. As Hotaling and Stocker said after the game, if you go to the Rancho and graduate you will always be welcomed back. These players will always be Cougars no matter what happens.
Though much of the talk was on the seniors, the players who might benefit the most from this long run are the juniors and sophomores. Players like Mihalis Santorineos, Gino Mencarini, Jayden Herrera and Dimitri Johnson will all be key players for the Cougars next season, and according to Hotaling, playing this many games will only help them moving forward.
Johnson is one of those players who seemed to get better as the season went on. He started off as just a linebacker, but by game 15 he was a key part of the offense. Johnson finished with 44 yards receiving and one touchdown. He was one of the stars for the Cougars Saturday night.
“The beginning of the season we started off rough, we didn’t know who we were yet,” Johnson said. “Coach really did a great job getting after us and making us push ourselves harder, which gave us the extra gear to get through the playoffs.”
When asked what the key was to his standout performances the last couple of weeks, Johnson credited his comfort in the offense.
“I’m stepping up more for the team because I want to play a bigger role for Rancho this year and on to next year too, so that they can rely on me and know that I’m responsible for my actions on the field,” Johnson said.
Johnson also promised Cougar Nation that he and Santorineos, along with all the other returners, will go even harder this offseason.
“We are going to go even harder this offseason and next season so that we won’t ever experience this feeling again,” Johnson said.
Johnson was hopeful the Cougars will start 2020 with the same urgency they ended 2019 with. He means the Cougars need to play the way they did in the playoffs.
He also wrapped up by saying there’s no place he would want to be except Rancho. Johnson talked about the family atmosphere, how many of the fans showed up to support them and how he can go over to any one of his teammates houses and be treated like family.
Though the 2019 football season ended with disappointment, the Cougars football program is looking up and every community member who showed up to support the team enjoyed a phenomenal season. Regardless of the result, the Cougars players and coaches are proud of their performance and that’s the most important thing to remember.
The 2019 Rancho Cotate Cougars football team are legends and will be talked about until the end of time by the City of Rohnert Park. It’s time to salute them one more time. Well, done Cougars.