Ed Conroy has seen his share of homecoming football games and festivities at Rancho Cotate High School. But he knows tonight’s game has a different feel to it.
The school is celebrating its 50th anniversary tonight, which means there are even more potential distractions for his team, which squares off against Santa Rosa High in Cougar Stadium at 7:30 p.m.
The football game will be the centerpiece for a slew of activities this weekend, including the halftime parade of past Rancho Cotate homecoming queens, an introduction of a huge inflatable spirit tunnel, the actual crowning of the queen and king and a fireworks show afterward. If the Cougars continue to perform as they’ve been the past few weeks, there should be plenty of fireworks on the field as well, but more on that later.
“This year is different…there’s a lot of stuff going on,” said Conroy, who will be coaching in his final homecoming game. “We’ve been talking to the kids about staying focused, but we want them to have fun and enjoy homecoming. But like it is every year, they’ll enjoy it a lot more if they win the football game. All you can do is try to prepare them for what’s going to happen so they’re not really thinking about it.”
Tonight’s homecoming crowd may be one of the biggest in school history, as alumni from all over are returning to take part in the school’s 50th anniversary.
Some who return will be making their first trek to the new Cougar Stadium, which was built in 2008 and is one of the finest facilities in the North Coast Section.
Cougar Stadium has hosted a number of NCS finals for both soccer and football as well as the North Bay Rattlers, a semi-professional football team.
Those who have played for Rancho Cotate in the past may not recognize the style of offensive football the Cougars are playing this year. The Cougars traditionally run teams into the ground with a punishing ground attack.
Rancho Cotate (4-0 in the North Bay League and 5-2 overall) still has an effective running game that can grind out crucial yardage when necessary. But the focal point of the offense is an aerial attack that can be absolutely lethal when it’s hitting on all cylinders.
Junior quarterback Jake Simmons has put up some eye-popping numbers through seven games this season. Simmons has thrown for 32 touchdowns against only three interceptions and he also leads the team in rushing touchdowns with six. He’s thrown touchdown passes to eight different receivers thus far.
Simmons has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,387 yards and averages 341 yards passing per game. Rancho Cotate has averaged 48 points per game this season
“Offensively, we’re way better than I thought we’d be,” Conroy said. “Jake is having an unbelievable year…he’s played really well. We lost some good kids on the offensive line to graduation, but others have stepped up and done a good job for us.”
The Cougars last year had a legitimate star at wide receiver in Chris Taylor-Yamanoha, who currently is a red-shirt freshman at the University of Louisville. His graduation opened up a lot of opportunities for other receivers, and they’ve taken advantage.
Simmons’ three primary targets are Jaelen Ward, Logan Reese and AJ Vallejos. Ward has been the most productive receiver, with 54 catches for 851 yards and eight touchdowns, while Reese has been more of a big-strike receiver with 28 catches for 595 yards (21.3 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns. Vallejos has proven the most economical with 23 receptions for 284 and eight touchdowns.
The full brunt of Rancho Cotate’s offense was unleased on Ukiah last Friday when the Cougars rang up a 55-7 victory. The game had already been decided at halftime as the Cougars held a 41-7 lead.
Simmons again was efficient, completing 16 of 25 passes for 350 yards and four touchdowns. One of those touchdowns was an 83-yard gem of a play to Ward, who had seven catches for 211 yards. Simmons also had three rushing touchdowns in the game.
Rancho Cotate’s running back Ryan Whetstone also contributed eight rushes for 96 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Reese and Vallejos each hauled in a TD pass.
Overshadowed by the offensive production has been an ever-improving Rancho Cotate defense.
After allowing a whopping 63 points in the season opener at Analy and giving up nearly 300 rushing yards to Alabama-bound running back Najee Harris of Antioch, the Cougars’ defense has gotten a little stingier.
“There’s no question we’ve gotten better defensively, which we needed to do, but we’re still not as good as I’d like us to be,” Conroy said. “We have to do certain things better on defense and on special teams, particularly with the other team’s kickoff and punt returns. But we’re getting better at doing all those things. The most important thing is our kids are playing hard and competing on every down.”
Santa Rosa enters tonight’s game with a 5-2 record overall and are 2-2 in the NBL.