You know the phrase, getting the monkey off your back? This means overcoming an obstacle that was constantly standing in the way. This phrase has been referenced regarding athletes like John Elway, Steve Young and even Lebron James. All three players overcame significant challenges on their way to winning championships. The Rancho Cotate Cougars faced a similar situation leading up to Saturday night’s game against Benicia High School.
Entering Saturday’s game, the Cougars made the NCS Division 3 Playoff Semifinals six times in a row. Until Saturday night they had failed to advance past the semifinals, losing the last three to private schools. The Cougars went from losing to teams like Bishop O’ Dowd, Cardinal Newman and Marin Catholic to beating the Panthers of Benicia High School 40-28.
It was clear how emotional this game was for the Cougars. Players let out shouts of joy, hugged the coaching staff and started a Rancho chant around the 30-yard line. Not only was this game important for the players because it meant their hard work, dedication and focus was rewarded, but it was also important to Gehrig Hotaling and his coaching staff. This win showed the Cougars are entering an all new level of greatness and Hotaling couldn’t have been prouder of the team.
“It’s incredible,” Hotaling said. “The foundation was laid before this and knowledge passed down from team to team, from year to year, coach to coach like Coach (Ed) Conroy to me. It’s incredible, I’m just speechless.”
Hotaling is usually concise with his post-game meetings, but tonight was different. There wasn’t any coaching or words of encouragement, it was just pure, raw emotion and telling his team how much he loves them and how proud he was of them overcoming adversity en route to the championship game.
For those in attendance, they were again treated to a wonderful game. Though Saturday’s game didn’t come close to last Friday night’s Windsor game, the Panthers and Cougars still put on a show for the fans in attendance.
The game started off with the Cougars’ offense pounding the ball with Rasheed Rankin and the Cougars’ offensive line. This would be the theme all night for the Cougars. With two first quarter touchdowns, Rankin had the Cougars up 14-0.
After the 14-0 lead was when the game started to get crazy. The Panthers’ passing offense started off rough, with quarterback Kameron Lane throwing interceptions to Tai Peleti on his first two pass attempts. After this rough start, the Panthers’ triple option offense started to find a rhythm and like last week, the Cougars’ secondary struggled to stop long touchdowns from happening.
The game was back and forth until Rankin’s fourth touchdown of the night finally put the game to bed with about 3:30 minutes left. At this point everyone on the Rancho sideline, from parents, students, band members and cheerleaders could feel what was about to happen. All the Cougars had to do was finish.
Finish they did. The defense, as they have done all season, forced a turnover to end the ball game and allow the celebration to start.
Though the Cougars were victorious, Hotaling wasn’t completely satisfied with the defensive performance. He cited big plays as the issue and stressed that these need to be cleaned up if they want to win next week.
“We’ve seen the triple option offense before this year, and I thought we did a great job of stopping the run against those types of athletes,” Hotaling said. “Where they made their money was in the passing game, it’s been two games in a row for us defensively, so we have to get that fixed quick.”
When asked about how the Cougars will clean up the defensive mistakes, Hotaling had a simple one-word answer: practice.
The flipside for the Cougars was the masterful play of their offense. Quarterback Jared Stocker had 196 yards passing and two touchdowns, while Rankin had 136 yards and 4 touchdowns. When those two plays at Saturday’s level the Cougars will be difficult to beat. Besides the stats, the most important thing for Hotaling was zero turnovers.
Turnovers, along with extra points and penalties, are the keys for every Cougar game. When the offense doesn’t turn the ball over they can score 40 points in a blink of an eye. The Cougars’ offensive performance was pleasing to Rankin.
“We saw they were playing the same defense as last week, so we knew it was going to be five on five football and we trust our O-line against anyone,” Rankin said.
Rankin also praised Stocker for his performance and reiterated that he thinks Stocker is one of, if not the best, quarterback in the NCS. Rankin has 100 percent trust in Stocker and, with how the offense flowed, it’s easy to see why.
Rankin is a three-year varsity player, so he has seen experienced the two gut-wrenching defeats the last two years. It was clear how much this win meant to him and every other senior playing their last game at Cougar Stadium during the postgame interviews.
“It’s amazing,” Rankin said. “It’s my third time in a row going into this game since I got pulled up, they’ve always been close losses and we finally did what we do best, get down and dirty and play Rancho football. It’s amazing, I love it, the best feeling I’ve had in a long time.”
Rankin wasn’t the only Rancho senior who enjoyed a great night. Tai Peleti also capped off his career at Cougar stadium with two interceptions. He set up the Cougars second score of the first quarter with an interception.
Peleti has been one of the constants on a Cougars’ defense that has been forced to mix and match all season due to injuries. He credited the Cougars’ mindset for why they were finally able to break through.
“Everyone always kept in the back of their head, it’s always been the semifinals and that’s it,” Peleti said. “This year, since we didn’t worry about it all week and didn’t talk about it once, we did what we needed to do on the field.”
It’s unknown what approach Hotaling will take in preparation for Las Lomas, but the not thinking approach seemed to work well for the Cougars, considering it’s easy to get in your own head knowing how many times you have failed to advance past the Semifinals.
Peleti always said he feels like the Cougars pass defense was better this week and they are getting back to what they do.
Next week will be an indicator on how good the Cougars defense is considering; they will play a Las Lomas team fielding Isaiah Newell a 6’2’’ 215 running back who is already committed to Oregon State University next fall. Newell chose Oregon State over schools like Arizona State, Colorado, Fresno State, Kansas State, Oregon, San Jose State, USC and Utah.
Newell was named a top ten running back in the entire state of California in the preseason and is a consensus top 50 player in the state, which includes every position. Safe to say Newell is a stud and Cougars’ run defense will be tested.
They also possess a couple of stud linebackers, according to Rankin. There’s a reason why Las Lomas are the number one seed and fans of high school football will want to tune in for this one if they can. The game will be next Friday night starting at 7 p.m. and it will be played at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California.
Though, Hotaling might not want to admit this to his team just yet, he knows what the Cougars have the chance to do.
“Winning a championship would be incredible,” Hotaling said. “I couldn’t imagine it, but we are going to need to imagine it because it’s getting real very soon.”