Cougar football becomes RP downtown

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

ROHNERT PARK — It’s easy to celebrate a team that wins its last game. No risk is involved. No doubt clouds the issue. It’s an honest, committed celebration, to be sure, but would the same people be there with the same enthusiasm if their team lost its last game? Would those people still hold their team in such high esteem? I think we all know the answer to that one.

Rancho Cotate's football players say cheer at the end of a party that local business owners in Rohnert Park pulled together to celebrate their accomplishment of being North Bay League champions in Div. II. The event that was held at University of Sports for the team and their families included a dinner and a t-shirt and a send off to the NCS Div. II championship game that will be held Saturday at the Oakland Coliseum. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

That’s what made what happened here Thursday night at University of Sports so different, so refreshing, so clear and obvious in its intent. A catered dinner for the players, the coaches and their families occurred two days BEFORE Rancho was to play Concord in the D2 NCS Final. People in this city didn’t want to wait for the outcome. Wasn’t necessary. What those kids needed to know now, not later, was that they have done more for the community than just win football games.

“This city has been facing some difficult times lately,” said Gina Belforte, the city’s vice mayor. “The loss of Calli Weber (a 2-year old girl struck by a car and killed in a crosswalk) was a major loss. We have had financial struggles. The loss of State Farm was very significant. It feels like for every two steps forward we take, we take one step back.

“But our football team. They have been our shining star.”

It has become such a cliché that it has lost much of its impact: A sports team lifts up a city. One always wonders how much of that is political spin-doctoring that feels as sincere as an anonymous pat on the back. Might as well say it. Can’t hurt. Might even get a few extra votes.

Thursday night wasn’t about votes; no election is forthcoming. Wasn’t about financial gain, either. Businessman Mark Pippin, the initiator, said the affair for 150 people cost about $2,500. It was, at its core, a football team shining a light through the fog for a lot of people. Thanks, kids, for a brighter day and thanks, too, for putting a face and image on a city that so many people in Sonoma County shrug off as an amorphous collection of suburban sameness.

“That we are something sandwiched in between Santa Rosa and Petaluma, that’s the perception,” said Barbara Vrankovich, the superintendent of the Rancho Cotate School District. “This my 36th year in this school system and I always felt Rohnert Park has been overlooked and undervalued.”

That’s why Rancho’s to-date 12-1 record and NBL title is so valuable to a city with no downtown, no gathering spot. Rancho’s football team has become that gathering spot. Rancho’s football team provides an energy that so many say a bedroom community cannot provide. How uninteresting and insignificant, after all, can a city be that has a high school team still playing football when 39 others (in The Press Democrat’s circulation area) are not?

How uninteresting is Brian Dworkin, as tough to catch as a butterfly with a paper cup? How about the defense, which gives up touchdowns as often as Dr. Phil admits mistakes? What about a sophomore quarterback (Michael Courchaine), who had never taken a snap from center in a varsity game, suddenly enters the most important game of the year because everyone else was injured — and stabilizes a situation that could have gone sideways so easily?

Something went on here Thursday night at Rohnert Park and it was more than a bunch of commuters tucking themselves in for the night.

“This dinner gets me pumped up for the game,” said Rancho defensive end and tight end Mike Tuaua. “When I play in the game, I will think about what happened Thursday night, that these people did all this for us.”

The politicians, school officials, coaches and players all were saying the same thing but in different ways.

Do not ignore the city or the team.

“We are the scrappy dog that doesn’t always get noticed,” said Vrankovich, referring to the city and its high school. “Or, I guess you could say, we are the scrappy cougar.”

The scrappy cougar that began the 2010 season before 2010.

“I really think we began this year after our last game last year,” said Rancho head coach Ed Conroy, referring to Petaluma stopping Cougar fullback Sergio Orduna on the goal line in the 2009 NCS playoffs, preventing a touchdown that would have won the game for Rancho. “When we began double days in the summer, we had a saying, ‘Run Through The Back Of The End Zone.’”

In training camp and during the season, any Rancho back didn’t stop until he ran to and through the end zone. It was Conroy’s way of reminding his players how close they had come and how close they were to being an elite team. He wanted them to find that extra step, that extra ounce of willpower, that extra minute in practice, to set them apart. In quarterback Poueu Peleti-Gore, Conroy offered the perfect example of a player who did all that.

“Last year Po would get in the open but he would get caught,” Conroy said. “This year he out-runs people. He doesn’t get caught. He has found that extra gear.”

Will his extra gear, and his team’s, be enough Saturday night against a Concord team that can make scoring look ridiculously easy? Who knows. And that’s besides the point, anyway.

“They are already winners,” Belforte said. “I hope they know that.”

Sometimes the final score signals the end of a game but also the start of something else, that Rohnert Park is more than a nice place to go to sleep.

For more North Bay sports, go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blog.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.