Rancho Cotate hoping to make amends

Rancho Cotate running bck Brian Dworkin. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / PD).


The high school postseason can be something of a mystery as football teams from far-flung leagues and cities collide, often with only minimal ability to scout. For Rancho Cotate, though, the mission in Saturday night’s game at Pinole Valley’s Deuker Stadium couldn’t be any clearer. The Cougars want to be three points better than they were on Sept. 10, when they lost, 23-21, to the Spartans.

Same field, same teams, higher stakes this time around — and Rancho Cotate coach Ed Conroy is hoping for a different result.

“We’ve watched film from that game, and I knew that one would haunt us,” Conroy said. “I really feel that was almost a wakeup call for our kids. We knew we had a pretty good team. We had our plan, and we took a 14-point early lead. I think our kids got kind of confident, and they didn’t keep playing hard. I really we felt had a chance to win, and we didn’t.”

The Cougars have given up few big plays in 2010, but that season-opening loss was the exception. James Lewis, Pinole Valley’s star running back, had an 81-yard touchdown run after Rancho got up 14-0, and defensive back Kye Duren returned an interception 55 yards for the go-ahead score in the second half.

The second-seeded Spartans (11-0-1) have hardly slowed down since. The only blemish on their record is a 28-28 tie against Sequoia a week after beating the Cougars. Sequoia also finished 11-0-1, drawing the No. 2 seed in the Central Coast Section Division 2 playoffs.

Pinole Valley has 173 points in its past four games. A week ago, Lewis had 243 yards and three rushing touchdowns in a 38-28 victory over Washington, scoring on 86- and 65-yard bursts.

The Spartans passed for minus-2 yards in that one — a figure that might have embarrassed alumnus Gino Torretta, who won the Heisman Trophy as Miami’s quarterback in 1992.

If there is a Redwood Empire defense strong enough to stop that sort of firepower, it could be No. 3 Rancho Cotate’s. The Cougars (11-1), who have only two losing seasons since 1998, pitched four shutouts this year, including a 51-0 whitewash of Arroyo in the opening round of the playoffs.

The bigger challenge for Rancho may be scoring against Pinole Valley’s underrated defense.

Brian Dworkin, who hasn’t missed a game during three years in the Cougars’ backfield, figures to get much of the ground yardage. He had just 40 yards in a 30-13 victory over Clayton Valley last week, but Conroy notes that Dworkin had a lot of yards negated by penalties. Rancho was flagged an uncharacteristic 11 times in that game, including four blocks in the back.

Fortunately for the Cougars, quarterback Poueu Peleti-Gore rose to the occasion. The senior quarterback is Conroy’s coach on the field, but his efforts are hard to measure statistically.

Frequently, Peleti-Gore is responsible for calling plays based on the defensive alignment he encounters at the line. These are called “check-with-me’s,” and Conroy estimates his QB did that on 60 percent of the plays the Cougars ran in a 56-18 win over Montgomery on Oct. 8.

Even when Peleti-Gore is running a play called in from the sideline, his decision-making is paramount. Rancho’s triple-option veer offense is designed to leave at least one defender unblocked. Peleti-Gore must read that player’s intentions — or monitor two players if they are stacked — and run or pitch to where a mismatch favors the offense.

“Poueu is the best option quarterback I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some good ones,” Conroy said. “A lot of it falls on his shoulders, obviously.”

The coach believes his offensive line might surprise some people this weekend. Against Pinole Valley in September, the Cougars had several blockers in new positions, and they played a bit tentatively.

“Our tackles and guards have to talk to each other, and I think they were shy about making calls early on,” Conroy said. “Now they make the adjustments on the field that they have to make. Before we even yell instructions, they’re already picking up on what they need to change. We’ve come a long way in that area.”

The line has fought through all manner of adversity this season. Right tackle Joe Munyer missed the first two games of the season to attend to his father, who was in the hospital after suffering a heart attack; Munayer later missed time with a thigh contusion. Left tackle Jason Fanelli broke his thumb and sat out six weeks. Center Gregg Connor has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee and is unconfirmed for tonight’s game.

Each injury has resulted in shuffling along the line.

“Every week, if someone went down, someone else had to play,” Conroy said. “The next kids have done really well.”

The Cougars will need that type of resilience if they are to beat Pinole Valley and advance to the Division 2 title game. They also could benefit from the raw emotion of a little vengeance.

“I think our kids are really anxious and ready to play,” Conroy said. “If we had taken care of business the first time, we would probably have been playing here. But that doesn’t matter. We’re happy to have a shot.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com