Some might say this was Fog Bowl 2.0, others might say it was a matchup between two heavyweight fighters with the intention of killing each other. Rancho Cotate Head Football Gehrig Hotaling would just describe this game as an all-time classic.
Whatever the description of the game, this was one of the best high school games in recent memory. The game between the Rancho Cotate Cougars and Windsor Jaguars is the perfect example of what playoff football is all about.
This game had everything from big plays by Windsor’s offense to Rancho’s defense scoring two touchdowns. All these plays will be broken down in more detail later. For now, all that needs to be known is the final score was 38-33 Rancho Cotate. With the win, they are guaranteed to have another home game next week.
“I didn’t recognize our defense in the first half,” Hotaling said. “But, that is because of injuries and plugging guys in the secondary who have been hurt for a long time who were trying to work off the rust against a really good group of receivers.”
This quote by Hotaling is 100 percent true. For those who have watched the Cougars every game or follow the team, it’s clear the defense has been special all season. The defense won the Pleasant Valley game with an interception, kept the Cougars in the games against Sacramento High School and Cardinal Newman and had a shutout last week against Ukiah.
The defense wasn’t good in the first half. The defensive line wasn’t getting pressure, the secondary struggled against Windsor’s’ talented receiving core, but in the end, the Cougars pulled out the victory through sheer will and mental toughness
Windsor receiver Nico Contreras is a flat-out super star for the Jaguars. He came into Friday’s game, second in the North Bay League with 818 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns. Contreras finished close to 200 yards Fri. night. Hotaling couldn’t say enough kind words about Contreras.
“That kid is unbelievable, he must have had over 200 yards,” Hotaling said. “He was hard to stop, and we tried everything, we tried doubling him and throwing every matchup at him we could.”
According to Hotaling, Windsor was in third and long almost exclusively and they converted around 80 percent of them. It was an unreal performance by the Jaguars offense and Contreras was one of the biggest reasons why.
Though the Cougars’ defense struggled for most of the game, they got better as the game progressed. One reason why Windsor’s offense was so effective in the first half was the lack of pass rush. Every one of the Cougars’ defensive plays came courtesy of the pass rush. The defensive line getting pressure is the key for any defense, especially for the Cougars.
The pass rush led to Gino Mencarini’s fumble recovery, Mihalis Santorineos’ pick 6 and Alex Sandoval’s interception. When the Cougars get pressure, they are unbeatable defensively. Hotaling felt that the Cougars started to wear down the Jaguars as the game progressed.
“I feel like we were in good shape and maybe their offensive line got a little bit tired,” Hotaling said.
This last point Hotaling made was true. Being on the Cougars’ sideline, it was clear the strategy both offensively and defensively, was to wear down the Jaguars. Even the late third quarter the coaches were saying the Jaguars looked fatigued.
In playoff games teams need their key players to step up. This was true on the defensive side of the ball. Junior middle linebacker, Mihalis Santorineos, has been the leader of the Cougars’ defense all season long and Fri. night was no exception. Santorineos was exceptional with 15 tackles, two blocked extra points and a pick six.
“We weren’t playing our game, we weren’t playing Rancho football,” Santorineos said. “We were trying to play with them instead of playing our game and we just had to turn it around at halftime.”
Santorineos spoke highly of the pass rush and the kicking game. He said in a close game like Fri. every little play is huge, so making extra points and creating turnovers are keys to the game. As for his two blocked extra points, Santorineos explained why those happened.
“You know that’s our mentality on defense, if they get a score we will take it away from them on the kick,” Santorineos said. “We have a little scheme going and I owe it all to my teammates in front of me as why I got there.”
If there’s been an Achilles heel for the Cougars, it’s been Special Teams. Coming into Friday’s game the Cougars had only made two field goals all season. Between having a new kicker, bad snaps and players learning on the job, extra points and field goals were always a problem for the Cougars. Until Friday night.
The Cougars’ special teams had a perfect night. Kicker Alex Sandoval went 3 for 3 on extra points and made a 35-yard field goal. Sandoval also was booming kickoffs into the foggy night for touch backs. For someone who’s played soccer his whole life, Fri. night was a breakout for him.
“I always wanted to play football since I was little, but my parents never let me and senior year they just let me come out here to kick,” Sandoval said. “Then I ended going to safety trying to play that and I ended up playing safety and corner.”
Sandoval’s story is one so often shared by young athletes and parents. Football is the glamour sport all young men want to play. Along with boxing and hockey, it’s the true alpha sport, only the biggest and strongest athletes play it. For young men, being a football player is the dream. For parents it’s the opposite. Most parent’s know about the violent nature of the game and shy away from their kids playing for fear of brain damage, chronic back pain and knee injuries.
Though Sandoval has only played for one season, he’s become a key part of the Cougars’ defense and special teams. Sandoval has always had the leg because of his soccer background and the fact he’s now playing defensive back on top of it, shows his decision to play football was a good one.
When asked about the adjustment from kicking a soccer ball to kicking a football, Sandoval said it’s not a huge difference. The big difference for him is learning how to contort his body and just kicking differently. Whatever his adjustments, they are working, as he is booming the football now.
“We’ve just been executing all day at practice on Thursdays right before the game because we knew kicking would be a big factor in the game, so I just came out laser focused,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval also credited his offensive line and every other player involved in helping him have a great night.
Sandoval also had a fourth quarter red zone interception which helped the Cougars stave off the late Windsor rally. Sandoval again credited the defense for letting him make the play and noted how his matchup with Windsor’s EZ Woodard went.
“They (Windsor) were throwing to Number 30 all game because they thought he could beat me” Sandoval said. “On that play I just read it, got the interception and we got the win at the end.”
Players like Sandoval are why the Cougars are advancing. The stars for Rancho played well, but to win a championship, the role players and lesser known players are often the ones who step up and deliver.
This game gave the Cougars some information on how the playoffs will be. They know now exactly what the next game or two will entail. Looking at how the team has responded to adversity all season, and what Santorineos said at the end, it’s safe to say the Cougars will be ready to go against Number 3 seed Benicia.
“We are going to come back bigger, better, stronger and just got to be ready.”