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April 20, 2021
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Cougars arise from pandemic with big win

  • Rancho's number 14 Angel Ruiz caught Gauchos running back number 33 in the backfield for a loss. This was one of many defensive plays that held the Gauchos to 13 points to the Cougar's 49 in their first game since the start of the pandemic. Photo by Robert Grant

  • Ryan Kane looks for his end zone landing after breaking the last Gauchos' tackle attempt for one of the Cougars' 7 touchdowns in their first home game of the season on the newly resurfaced field. Photo by Robert Grant

By: Paul Matli
March 26, 2021

Those who attended Friday night’s Rancho Cotate football game weren’t exactly sure what it would be like. Would football during the era of Covid be the same as it was before? The answer was yes. Seeing the parking lot full of cars about 6:45 p.m., seeing lines of people waiting to get inside and feeling a cold chill in the air gave off the feel of fall. The only things different were the mask wearing and lack of cheering.

Back in 2019 Cougars stadium was loud, fans were screaming the whole time and the players were running up and down the sideline firing the crowd up. It was clear the players responded to the fans. Friday night it was so quiet in the stadium you could hear a pin drop. It was so quiet you could hear the cadence of both quarterbacks, coaches screaming out plays and players choice words on the sidelines. The game ended in a fashion Cougars fans have gotten used to recently with a Cougars victory.

The Cougars defeated the Casa Grande Gauchos 49-13 to win their first game in a year and a half.

Though much didn’t change regarding the overall football environment, much has changed for the Cougars football team. They lost quarterback Jared Stocker, running back Rasheed Rankin, and wide receivers Jack Reese, Darius Hurst and Brandon Proschold. So, they entered the 2021 season with three new quarterbacks, three new running backs and looking to see which receivers would step up besides Gianni Gigliello and Jordan Broderick.     

Moreover, the Cougars are an extremely young football team. They have five sophomores and one freshman on the team, so as Head Coach Gehrig Hotaling said, it will be a work in progress early because of how young the team is.

“We have many young guys, and we have great seniors, but there’s only a handful of them,” Hotaling said. “Our team is a mostly juniors, sophomores and a freshman. Those young guys played well, made some mistakes which hopefully they will learn from, but overall, I’m very pleased with the effort tonight and hope to clean up the turnovers next week.”

Hotaling wasn’t thrilled with the five turnovers but he acknowledged the Cougars had some rust  which came from being a very young offense. Four of those turnovers came from starting quarterback Jacob Greiner, but according to Hotaling only one was his fault. Two were nice passes that the Gaucho defensive backs made tremendous plays on, while the other was a miscommunication between him and his receivers. Hotaling only charged Greiner for one interception. 

Though Hotaling was proud of how Greiner played overall, he wasn’t sure exactly how the quarterback situation will work next week since back-up Ryan Kane played so well.

Kane looked like Cam Newton in his prime Friday night. He was inserted as the Cougars red zone back and didn’t disappoint. He scored three touchdowns in the red zone and one on a 40-plus yard scamper through the Gauchos defense. He then hit senior wide receiver Jordan Broderick in the back of the end zone to cap off his five- touchdown performance.

 The junior quarterback gives the Cougars a unique feel to their offense. He performed almost  a Taysom Hill type role for the Cougars. Those who are familiar with football would know how Taysom Hill is used for the Saints. Kane playing so well certainly prompted questions about who the starting quarterback will be moving forward. 

“The quarterback moving forward is to be determined,” Hotaling said. “Obviously Ryan had a great game, I like all three of our quarterbacks and all three of them are going to play.”

 Hotaling made it a point to mention how he wants to play everybody. Even though the Cougars want to make the playoffs and compete for a North Coast Section Title again, it’s just as important for them to develop the young players because that’s the key to having a successful program year in year out.

Besides the five turnovers, Hotaling was pleased with the offensive performance. The Cougars scored 35 points on offense and Hotaling thinks they would have scored way more if not for the turnovers.

Another interesting rotation to watch will be the running back position. Since there’s no more Rankin, the Cougars need to find a way to replace him. The Cougars have three running backs who all played and showed good things. Sophomore Deion Ortiz, seniors Ray Pruitt and Skylar Dunleavy all showed flashes Friday night. Pruitt had an explosive 93-yard kick return touchdown, while Ortiz and Dunleavy did a good job of running inside and outside to get the Cougars in position for the Kane show. This position group will certainly be one to watch moving forward.

The defensive side of the football is where the Cougars dominated. Just like the offense was the dominate unit in 2019 and the defense came on late, the defense will be the dominate unit and might have to carry the Cougars. This unit is where the returning players are. Seniors Gianni Gigliello, Dimitri Johnson, Max Uli, Garrett Ridley and Mihalis Santorineos along with Junior Gino Mencarini were all dominant Friday night.

Gigliello had a pick 6 late in the fourth quarter, Uli, Ridley and Mencarini had constant pressure all night while Johnson and Santorineos controlled the game as linebackers.   

“The defense is a championship caliber defense,” Hotaling said. “A lot of those guys returned from the two shutouts in the 2019 championship games, so we know what we are getting out of them, it’s the offense that needs to improve and cut down on the turnovers.”

The Cougars will have a test this Friday night against Las Lomas High School in what will be a rematch of the 2019 NCS Championship game won by the Cougars in shutout fashion. The game starts at 7 p.m. and should be found on NFHS Network.