Next man up. This phrase started as simple coach speak and has since evolved into the most used saying by coaches and players when talking about injuries. Next man up at its core is about the next guy on the depth chart stepping up. If the starting quarterback is hurt, then the backup steps in or if a running back is hurt, other guys need to step in. For the Rancho Cotate Cougars next man up applied to Salisa Vadrawale, the all-world dynamo.
When news dropped about Vadrawale being out for three weeks, panic could have set in for the Cougars. They could have said how will we replace him, but instead it was next man up. The next two in line were sophomore Ananias Walker and senior Jimmy Lemar. Since they’re listed as the number two and three receivers on the depth chart, it was on them to make sure the offense didn’t miss a beat.
“We didn’t change much,” Head Coach Gehrig Hotaling said. “We have faith in our other guys to do a good job. We knew you’re taking a lot of stats out of our offense without 17 but other guys stepped up and contributed, some who haven’t contributed all year made big plays when it counted, especially on third down.”
Besides Walker and Lemar, who have been consistent contributors all year long, players like junior Dylan Gagnon, junior Humphrey Rico and senior Jalil Tams were three guys who had hardly played before Friday night but gave the Cougars exactly what they needed.
Rico finished with 27 yards on 3 receptions, Gagnon had 4 receptions for 29 yards and Tams had 2 receptions for 30. Of course, Lemar and Walker were the workhorses for the Cougars with 13 catches between the two of them. Having all these receivers contribute shows just how deep the Cougars are at that position, but also how the team exemplifies the next man up mentality.
“Next man up, everyone has to play their role and we’ve got to execute,” Lemar said.
“We’ve got playmakers on the field, three weeks out is a long time, we’ve just got to do our jobs,” Walker said.
Walker and Lemar are the two main receivers tasked with replacing Vadrawale’s production since they’ve been the other guys playing with him. Both are in year two playing varsity football but have had different journeys getting to this point.
Lemar was injured most of last season, so this is really the first time he’s gotten to show what he’s got, while Walker is a talented sophomore trying to put everything together at both wide receiver and corner. Both have come up with Vadrawale in the lineup and will have the opportunity to be stars in his absence.
“Without 17 in our lineup we need more contributors,” Hotaling said. “We were talking about it all week during practice, we didn’t know who it was going to be or at what moment, but it seems that collectively those guys stepped up so I’m proud of them for working hard throughout the week and understanding the game plan and executing.”
Every great team has times in the season where adversity hits, whether it be a bad loss, a key injury or just things not going their way. The Cougars have had to play through adversity all season long, so it makes sense that they will need to play through more. The good thing for the Cougars is how well quarterback Liam Keaney is playing. Keaney was again surgical to the tune of 5 touchdowns. His growth has been something to behold and will continue to be the key to the Cougars success moving forward.
“Liam, see the stat sheet, he was just racking up the numbers and just keeps getting better,” Lemar said. “He’s a winner.”
“He’s doing great this season, I’ve had quite a few touchdowns from him,” Walker said. Keaney’s growth will be the key for the Cougars whether Vadrawale comes back or not. With Cardinal Newman and Windsor still on deck, the Cougars will need to be playing their best football at the end of the season. West County gave the Cougars an opportunity to play guys who normally don’t see the field, which will only benefit the team moving forward. With Ukiah and Maria Carillo as the next two games, the Cougars will have the chance to see Lemar, Walker and the other receivers mature just in time for the North Bay League Showdowns at the end of the season.
Though the Cougars’ offense put up 63 points, Hotaling still felt like the team made some mistakes and need to clean things up.
“We shouldn’t have given them the ball on the kickoff return, they beat us on a couple nice routes, we had a dumb penalty on the fumble recovery that gave them 7 points,” Hotaling said.” If we clean up the little things, the big things will come together.”
The Cougars had a couple of things happen that the coaching staff won’t forget. A couple special teams’ miscues, like not recovering an onside kick, or giving up a huge kickoff return are easy things to fix. Giving up big plays in the secondary has been an issue all year and something that the Cougars need to fix for later in the season.
Another player who had an opportunity to showcase his skills was backup quarterback Jacob Pruitt. Pruitt, a junior, is a player who the Cougars are trying to find room for, according to Hotaling. With Keaney playing so well and Vadrawale taking over the role of wildcat quarterback, it’s difficult for Pruitt to crack the Cougars’ offensive rotation. He’s been getting snaps as a corner the last few weeks, but Pruitt really shined Friday night, once Keaney’s night was done. Pruitt had two rushing touchdowns, one in the wildcat role and another on the last drive of the game. Pruitt completed a couple of passes to get the Cougars in position and then he showed off his electric running ability breaking through the middle for a touchdown.
“He came in and did great,” Hotaling said. “I wish we could give him more opportunities, but Liam’s playing so well. Jacob was poised, operated the offense well and scored a touchdown, I’m proud of him.”
Friday was the best the Cougars defense has looked all season. They got an interception, a fumble return for a touchdown and seemed to be completely cued into what West County was doing. Though they gave up a few big pass plays in the secondary, overall, the Cougars’ defense continues to make strides towards being a very good defense for the stretch run.
The Cougars have now won four straight games and return home to face off with the Wildcats of Ukiah. This game will start at the normal time of 7 p.m. on Friday for any community members who want to come out and support.