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September 17, 2021
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Cougars’ magic returns

  • Rancho Cotate Cougar quarterback #8 Liam Keaney is a junior at the Ranch. Courtesy of local photographer: Ant Pruitt

By: Paul Matli
September 3, 2021

A hallmark of the Rancho Cotate Cougars 2019 football season was the team’s propensity to pull off miracles or simply find ways to win games where the chances looked dim. Saturday night’s game had a very 2019 feel to it. The offense sputtered in the first half putting up just 3 points, the Cougars kickoff coverage couldn’t do anything right, and the defense had been just okay. Then, out of nowhere, the team turned it on and found the extra gear to pull off one of the most improbable victories of Gehrig Hotaling’s coaching career.

“To be down like that and come back was incredible,” Hotaling said. “One of the most special games I’ve been a part of.”

The Cougars were down by 11 points, 35-24, with about 4 minutes left in the game and looking defeat squarely in the face after Las Lomas’ offense scored another touchdown. Then junior quarterback, Liam Keaney, led the Cougars on another touchdown drive to make it a four-point game. Like so many of the Cougars’ home games, there’s a moment where everything seems to break correctly, Saturday was another one of those nights.

The Cougars’ defense had struggled containing Las Lomas’ offense all night and after the Knights picked up a first down the game looked to be on ice. Rancho had just one timeout remaining and couldn’t stop the clock. All the Knights had to do was take three knees and the game was over. What happened next was almost too crazy to describe. While in shot gun formation, the snap from the Knights center went haywire, the ball was loose on the ground and the Cougars recovered, from being down and out to in with a chance.

Then came Kearney’s opportunity. Keaney is the future at the quarterback position and had his moment to show that Saturday night. Keaney had a rough start to his varsity career with a couple of early interceptions, but bounced back in the second half to lead to the Cougars to the brink of one of the best comebacks in recent memory for the program.

After getting the ball inside the Knights 40, it took the Cougars’ offense just a few plays to get the ball in the end zone. Keaney threw an absolute strike across the middle to senior Jimmy Lemar. This put the Cougars up 38-35. Now the defense had one more chance and they delivered.

Sophomore cornerback Ananias Walker intercepted the Knights quarterback on an out-route and pandemonium ensued. If this is the start of the 2021 season, there could be another special season on tap for the Cougars.

“I told you guys a long time ago you were a special group,” Hotaling said in his postgame talk to the team. “I just didn’t know if you believe it yourselves, hopefully now you guys believe a little bit.”

The Cougars certainly showed special traits Saturday night. Finding a way to win when you’re down by double digits late in the fourth quarter shows that. Next, having the game postponed because of bad weather and then moving to a different location takes a lot of mental toughness to overcome adversity and still refocus. 

2020 was filled with tons of adversity for the Cougars, because it was a rebuilding year after losing so many star players from the 2019 team. Most of the starters and key players on this year’s team were a part of last year’s team. Players like Keaney and Walker having the opportunity to play varsity as underclassmen certainly aided their development. It seems the Cougars have a knack for overcoming adversity.

Hotaling couldn’t have been more proud of his team, especially his young quarterback.

When asked about Keaney’s first varsity start, Hotaling didn’t mince words.

“Fantastic, fantastic,” Hotaling said. “Two picks, one wasn’t his fault, one was pretty bad, three touchdowns operated the offense magnificently especially in the second half, we couldn’t have done it without him.”

“I was a bit worried for a bit,” Hotaling said. “It seemed like they were dead to rights but they found something. I think this group has the ability to be something special and they pulled it out.”

Even with the offense putting up 38 points, Hotaling said there’s still some things to work on moving forward into next week.

“I thought we missed some things, little details here and there,” Hotaling said. “We weren’t executing, had the ball down on the one-yard line for a few downs and couldn’t punch it in and they go 99 yards and score. That was a big change of momentum and I told them at halftime we can’t let that be the defining play of the game, got to dig deep and pull this out.”

That play Hotaling described could have been the potential back breaker for the Cougars. At that point it was a 3-0 game, and the Cougars had a chance to make it 10-0. Not only did they stall at the one-yard, the defense proceeded to give up about 40 yards on a 3 down screen play. But, like all potential great teams do, they didn’t let that define them and bounced back with a vengeance.

Some other players to note were Ryan Kane, who transitioned from quarterback to running back and had a couple of explosive plays both with long runs and power runs in the red zone for touchdowns. Sophomore running back Tupotu Hale was also very impressive for the Cougars. He showed off his quickness throughout the game and was the featured back for the Cougars on Saturday night. Lastly, the Cougars wide receiver room is very versatile. There doesn’t seem to be a number of receivers as of yet, but the combination of Sailasa Vadrawale, Ananias Walker, Jimmy Lemar, and others make them a very interesting group to monitor going forward.

The Cougars will look to keep the momentum going against Acalanes High School of Lafayette next week. Like every season, there will be storylines to monitor and keeping tabs on Cougar football is something lots in the community will do and the boys are hoping to have a full stadium for their next home game, September 24, against Vanden High School.