Rancho Cotate faces daunting challenge

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Rancho Cotate has played, and won, some huge games in 2010. But the next one is a little different.

Rancho Cotate's Poueu Peleti-Gore picks up some yardage in an NCS second-round game on Nov. 26. Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat

When the Cougars take the field against Concord tonight, it won’t be between aluminum bleachers, with a snack shack off to the side and a few missing bulbs on the hometown scoreboard. It will be at the Oakland Coliseum, site of some of the most memorable football games in history.

“I remember the first time my kids had to play on artificial turf,” reflected Ed Conroy, Rancho Cotate’s long-time coach. “It was down at Logan High School (in Union City). They had that old type of AstroTurf. And my kids got on their field and they were kind of giddy running around. I can only imagine what they’ll be like at the Coliseum.”

To tamp down some of that excitement, Conroy pulled a scene directly from the screenplay of the movie Hoosiers. He walked his players out to their field in Rohnert Park and showed them the 100-yard expanse, reminding them that the grass in Oakland is of exactly the same dimensions.

The underlying message: Just go out and play the way you’ve been playing, and you’ll be all right.

The Cougars are aiming for their first section title since 2002, when they won the second of back-to-back NCS 3A Redwood Empire championships. A major obstacle stands in their way, though: Concord, a team that has spent the past couple weeks laying waste to Sonoma County football.

The top-seeded Minutemen bounced Maria Carrillo 46-20 in a section quarterfinal game, and outlasted Casa Grande 26-21 in a semifinal. To earn their first NCS crown, they will need to make it three in a row against No. 2 seed Rancho Cotate.

Conroy watched that Casa-Concord game, and he knows what Carrillo’s Jay Higgins and the Gauchos’ Trent Herzog learned before him — that the Minutemen have a potentially devastating aerial attack. Quarterback Ricky Lloyd ranks first in California among all divisions in passing yardage (4,126, or 317.4 yards per game), second in touchdown passes (47) and fourth in completion percentage (69.7). His yardage figure ranks sixth nationally.

“That kid is unbelievable,” Conroy said. “He’s a very good quarterback. I tell our DBs they’ll have less reaction time, because he gets the ball there in a heartbeat. In baseball terms it’s like going against guys who throw 65, then you face a 95-mph fastball guy. That kid’s the real deal. And he’s a good athlete. He can run.”

Oh, yeah, and Concord has a stable of skill-position players to go with Lloyd. Halfback Alec Pica has rushed for 1,212 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, while explosive wide receiver Kelly Starnes ranks second in the state with 104 receptions, third with 1,590 yards and second with 22 scoring catches.

“For us, it’s about their passing game, because we’re a good run-stopping team,” Conroy said. “We have to pressure this guy. We can’t let him sit back and throw the football. We have to disguise our coverages and try to catch him off-guard. And the other thing is, we have to move the football. I’d love for us to take a 10-minute drive and score. Those are the objectives, anyway.”

The Cougars did receive one major dose of good news this week when quarterback and team leader Poueu Peleti-Gore was cleared to play. Peleti-Gore sat out the second half of last week’s victory at Pinole Valley, with what most figured was a concussion.

Conroy said this week that it was not diagnosed a concussion, and the best option QB he’s ever had will be back under center against Concord.

Meanwhile, No. 2 quarterback Ricky Garcia, who suffered a concussion two weeks ago and sat out the Pinole Valley game, was to be re-evaluated by medical staff Thursday. Last week it was third-stringer Michael Courchaine, a junior-varsity call-up, who finished the victory.

Conroy doesn’t believe his Cougars have much of a chance of advancing to the Division 2 state championship game even if they win. Folsom (12-1, like both Rancho Cotate and Concord), champion of the Sac-Joaquin Section, is expected to receive that honor. The only chance Rancho has is for seemingly invincible De La Salle to lose to California, and for Folsom to be pulled into the Open Division title game.

Even that would offer no guarantee for the Cougars. So they will prepare for Concord and figure this is their final game of a superb season. An upset win, of course, would make it all the more satisfying.

“I don’t want to make it sound like David and Goliath, but they’re a very good team,” Conroy said. “It’s just another challenge for us. We’ve been lucky to play close games against good teams, and we pulled those games out. I think it’s been great for our kids that they can rally around situations like that and get it done.

“These kids have surprised me every time.”

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