Coaches use the phrase “peaking at the right time” frequently. The phrase is popular but most often used to talk about playoffs and what the team is showing going into the most important part of the season. For the Rancho Cotate Cougars this phrase rings true. The Cougars have had a season filled with ups and downs, from not executing in certain aspects of the game, to losing their starting quarterback and having to change around both the offense and defense, it hasn’t been easy for the Cougars to find their stride. But if Friday night’s game against Santa Rosa is any indication, the Cougars might be entering the playoffs exactly the way they want, on fire.
After a 49-3 win against Santa Rosa High School that saw most of the Cougars’ starters exit the game in the first half never to be seen the rest of the game, the team is headed on the upward trajectory. Friday’s game against Santa Rosa was never going to be a game the Cougars would lose, so this was the game Gehrig Hotaling and his coaching staff wanted to use as a tune-up. The Cougars came in with two goals, one was to get the passing game to be a little more consistent and second to solve the kicking woes. According to Hotaling, the Cougars solved the passing game and based on the results of the kicking game that was also fixed.
For the first time all season, the Cougars didn’t give the coaches heart attacks in the kicking game. Abel Calvillo was a perfect 7 for 7 on extra points, something Hotaling mentioned last week he wanted to fix. As for the passing game, he said they wanted to get quarterback Jacob Pruitt a little more consistent in the passing game.
“This was our most complete game so far, which is what we were looking for,” Hotaling said. “We’ve had good offensive games, good defensive games, good and bad special teams’ games and this is one we put them all together, so I was pleased with the effort.”
It was also Senior Night, so the Cougars putting together their most impressive performance in front of the home crowd was the icing on top. Quite a few Cougar seniors had relatives come in from all over California and elsewhere to watch them play, so putting on a show was something they wanted to do.
The show started on the first possession of the game. The Cougars came out guns blazing and throwing bombs down the field. Pruitt and Sai Vadrawale connected on two touchdown passes, one a deep bomb and the other a pass over the middle that Vadrawale took the rest of the way. Vadrawale wrapped up his night against a helpless Panthers defense with a rushing touchdown on the third possession. Vadrawale had what one might call a perfect game; he had three touches and scored 3 times, while accumulating 155 yards in the process. Pruitt also pitched a complete game going 5 for 5 for 187 yards and two passing touchdowns. He also had a rushing touchdown.
In fact, the Cougars had five rushing touchdowns in total. Vadrawale and Pruitt had one a piece, then running backs Tupotu Hale, Geovanny Ortiz and Camden Morrow all contributed one a piece. Morrow’s touchdown, in particular, got the whole sideline to erupt. Morrow ran through the hole, threw a couple stiff arms, and then outran the Panthers’ defenders down the sideline into the end zone, a great moment for the senior.
All this is what Hotaling wanted to see as he knows the playoffs will be a different animal than the regular season.
“It’s a nice tune up,” Hotaling said. “The whole season is a race for improvement and whoever gets hot right now could be a champion, so we’re trying to get the engine hot.”
Getting the engine hot is what the playoffs come down too. The NFL has seen it countless times where a team gets hot at the right time and ends up running the table even if they weren’t considered the best team or seeded the highest. Sometimes everything breaks right for a team, and they take advantage of it. Last year’s Division 2 playoffs played out exactly like this. Campolindo was the fourth seed last season but got hot at the right time and went all the way to the CIF Title game. The Cougars are hoping to replicate that success as the 3rd seed.
“Last year was our first year in Division 2 and we found out first-hand how tough it can be,” Hotaling said. “How big these schools are that we’re playing, how big their body sizes are, how strong they are. We had a good offseason, hit the weights hard, so I feel we’re a little more prepared for Division 2 this year.”
One of those players who is always in the weight room and always working is senior Malik Cleveland. As a UC Davis commit, Cleveland knew he needed to take his game to the next level, but also mentioned how big of a test the playoffs will be.
“We completed all aspects of the game today, offense, defense and special teams,” Cleveland said. “I’m proud of all the guys who played, especially those who don’t normally get a chance too, I thought our backups did amazing today.”
The beauty of blowout games is that players who don’t normally get a chance to play are out there. Seeing how well the second and third stringers competed against the Panthers’ first stringers speaks to the depth the Cougars have. This team is really deep and talented but only practice ones against ones, so the backups really must go off visuals and film study.
Cleveland echoed his coach’s statements about Division 2 and said the team learned a lot in the two playoff games last season.
“We learned that everyone is a lot bigger, faster, stronger,” Cleveland said. “We learned that we need to come out and compete, take teams seriously and work our butts off in practice that week.”
Cleveland mentioned that he had some personal goals this season as he prepares himself for playing at the next level. Just like Vadrawale, there’s always things you can improve on. For Cleveland it came down to understanding positioning and intelligence.
“I wanted to work on my IQ this year,” Cleveland said. “I’m pretty football smart, but there’s always more to learn, so I wanted to work on my IQ and strength.”
Coming into Friday night the big news wasn’t about the Cougars’ senior night or what kind of stats they would put up against Santa Rosa, it was all about the game being played about 20 minutes up the road in Windsor. Since the Cougars lost to the Jaguars, they needed a Jaguar loss to win the league. Of course, this meant cheering for their hated rival Cardinal Newman.
After the game was over all the players, student section and parents gathered around the big screen to watch what would be the final drive of the game. The Cougars and Jaguars were engaged in a heavyweight battle that would determine the league hierarchy. The game came down to the final play of the game where the Cardinals thought they made a defensive stop, only to be called for pass interference. The Jaguars scored on the next play to walk off with the 14-13 win and a league championship. This put a bit of a damper on the night, but the Cougars’ players were still pleased with the regular season and didn’t let that get in the way of how they played.
“Once we lost to Windsor, we didn’t control our own destiny, so it is what it is, we’ve just got to focus on playoffs now,” Hotaling said.
Quarterback Jacob Pruitt backed up Coach’s comments.
“The season was very successful, all things considered,” Pruitt said. “We’ve certainly been through a lot all season, so definitely content with the results and ready to move into playoffs.”
Pruitt was also pleased to get the passing game going, as it was something he knows they will need in the playoffs.
“We came out quick and made sure we did our jobs from the start,” Pruitt said. “The score just kept going up, so we just played our game and didn’t go down to their level.”
Pruitt was also happy to see all the running backs get involved. Oritz and Morrow both had their coming out parties Friday night, to the delight of the Cougars sideline.
“It’s phenomenal, it was amazing, especially Cam’s,” Pruitt said. “I loved seeing it, so happy for my teammates.”
It’s clear Morrow’s touchdown run was the highlight of the night, and he couldn’t have been more pleased with it since playing running back isn’t something he does very often.
“That touchdown run was awesome, “Morrow said. “It’s a feeling I never really experienced before since I don’t get to play running back very often, so to go in there and show them what I can do felt surreal in that moment running over some guys.”
Morrow said he does whatever the coaches ask him to do and play wherever they want him too. For most of his career he’s played linebacker but started off the season playing defensive lineman. Once Pruitt got taken out of the linebacker spot and Morrow replaced him, the defense seemed to stabilize and start playing much better as guys like Eric Rodriguez and Charlie Carrancho joined Morrow in upping their play.
“Throughout my high school career, I’ve been playing linebacker,” Morrow said. “Then I got moved to D end and I play wherever I need to play. As a linebacker I try my best to lead the defense, make sure we’re aligned correctly.”
The Cougars’ defense is making strides every week and Morrow is a huge part of that with his communication, instincts, and leadership. He, like everyone else, is focused on the playoffs which start Friday at 7 p.m. against Livermore. Morrow, when asked about last year’s playoffs and what the team learned, was very succinct in his answer.
“Last year we came in thinking we were the best, had this mindset that no one could beat us and that’s what got us in the end,” Morrow said. “This year we need to just play Rancho football and have the mindset that we are fighting for our season.”
Friday’s first round playoff game against Livermore is at 7 p.m., so get there early as it may be more crowded than normal.