THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If a team loses its final playoff game of the year, in any sport, it at least wants to walk away knowing it accomplished two things. Ideally. Didn’t leave anything in the locker room, and played well. Rancho Cotate did the first Saturday night, but failed to accomplish the second.
The Cougars lost to Concord, 24-14, in a NCS football semifinal and afterward it was clear Rancho felt the sting of this one. It appeared about half the team had red eyes and wet faces. Some were walking around, inconsolable, helmets still on, the grief that it was all over still too raw and too real. No one could accuse the Cougars of not caring, of second-guessing themselves that they could have tried harder, that somehow they could have wanted it more. No, the Cougars would have bled for this one, if coach Ed Conroy has asked them.
Cougar linebacker and running back Vaimo Taito was one of those players — his face was wet, his eyes moist, his look almost vacant, like he just witnessed something too horrible, too massive, to think about it.
“This is my last game of football for the Ranch,” said the senior, “and I don’t want it to end.”
Which led Taito to talk about why it ended. This is the part about not playing well.
Conroy had been working all season with his players to become more disciplined in their play, as they seemingly went through all the penalties in the official rule book at one time or another. From offsides to pass interference to everything else, Conroy kept doggedly at his team. It was the one thing, he said many times, that could hold his team back from finding how good they really are.
“And they (penalties) all came out today,” Taito said.
At times Saturday night it seemed as if the Cougars opened up the official rulebook and said to themselves, “Well, let’s try this one.”
And this one and that one and how about that one over there. They committed 14 penalties. Illegal procedure, pass interference, delay, personal foul, offsides, horse collar tackle, among others.
The most grievous and disheartening sequence came with 9:21 left in the third quarter. The Cougars were penalized four out of five plays. A second-and-9 at their 36 eventually became a fourth-and-31 at the 14 before they punted.
The end result of such a flurry was tentativeness. An offense gets gun-shy, anticipating a mistake instead of expecting success. Aggression is reduced, intensity diluted. Worrying about the next mistake is an anathema to any offense.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Conroy said of the penalties, at a loss to explain the why and the how of it. “We were penalized too much. Every time we took a step forward, it seemed like we took a step back.”
It wasn’t that Concord was error-free, either. The Minutemen had 13 penalties. The difference? Concord had Olito Thompson, the kid who was averaging 244 rushing yards a game, accumulating 2,928 total yards rushing during the season coming into the game.
“We know we aren’t going to stop him from getting his yards,” Conroy said before the game. “But we do want to stop him deciding the game.”
That would mean not giving Thompson any help. But the Cougars turned the ball over four times. Quarterback Ricky Garcia was 4-of-15 for 54 yards. He was intercepted twice and fumbled twice. Getting, therefore, more than his share of opportunities, Thompson ran 41 times for 282 yards. He showed why he is a premier high school running back.
“But this really hurts,” Taito said, “because we felt we could have won this one.”
Yes, it’s one thing to lose and know you were beaten. You tip your cap to your superior opponent. You can live with that. It still hurts but the pain won’t stay as long, not as long as it will for the Cougars, who will go into the winter knowing there was more to them than people saw this year and they have run out of chances to show it.
For more North Bay sports go to padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.