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PADECKY: Fitting end to colossal clash between Cougars and Cardinals

About the only thing missing from the celebration Friday night was champagne, a speech by the mayor and the keys to the city. Otherwise it was Times Square on New Year’s Eve when the clock strikes midnight. Screams to the sky to no one in particular, people hugging so aggressively someone would fall down, grown men flying into the air bumping shoulders, it felt like more than just a single victory, this heart-thumper that Rancho Cotate won over Cardinal Newman.

It was. And truth to tell, having seen and felt AT&T Park shake after the Giants won their first two World Series games, that was the atmosphere at Cougar Stadium. A mini-version, sure, but no less electric, rowdy and, especially, exuberant. Rancho beat Newman, 21-14, and, truth to tell again, this is probably what happens most of the time in Sonoma County when someone beats Newman in football.

“Yes, it did feel like a playoff game,” Cougars coach Ed Conroy said. “These kids have a dream to go beyond this game. And their dream continues.”

The road to the playoffs, it seems, always seems to go through Cardinal Newman. The confidence Rancho will get from this game is quantifiable and sustainable. Why? Because since 2003, Rancho has beaten Newman only once before Friday night. Both teams came into the game unbeaten, both in lockstep for quite some time to arrive at this point. This game had been on the football horizon for anyone who had followed the sport in Sonoma County and now there was this collective exhale.

“We felt like this was for the NBL championship,” said Rancho Cotate quarterback Michael Courchaine, knowing the Cougars have one league game left, next week at home against Santa Rosa.

It may take a week for Rancho to truly digest and then calm itself for the tension that seemed to almost overwhelm both teams in the fourth quarter. That proverbial line — about things suddenly turning on a dime — appeared to occur every other minute. It was exhausting to watch, if both teams had the time.

The moment that best represents the crucible of frenzied madness in this game came with 1:38 left on the clock. Cardinal Newman was out of timeouts. Rancho had third-and-6 on its own 40. Conventional wisdom would have Rancho — with the 21-14 lead — running the ball, letting the clock run down to mere seconds after a delay of game would be called. Sure, 6 yards was attainable but that was almost beside the point.

At the very least a Rancho punt deep into Newman territory and the Cardinals would have one, maybe two plays to go 80 or more yards.

That would be the conventional wisdom.

Instead Courchaine dropped back to pass. It would be a little pass to a wide receiver coming back to the center of the field.

The snap from center sailed over Courchaine’s head.

“Oh, Lord,” the quarterback thought to himself.

A victory over Newman was something Courchaine had been thinking about a lot leading up to the game. It would validate Rancho’s 8-0 start, providing the sweet impetus needed for a playoff run.

“All I could do was just fall on the ball,” Courchaine said.

Courchaine fell on the ball on the 18. It was a 22-yard loss. More to the point, it was 22 yards closer to Rancho’s end zone.

One Rancho punt later, Newman had the ball on its own 30. There were 42.4 seconds on the clock. Not a lot but much more than Newman would have expected.

Conroy knew he had made the wrong call.

“If I had to do it all over,” the coach said, “I’d have run the damn ball.”

On the first play Rancho’s Tanoa Peleti sacked Newman quarterback Keaton Dunsford.

With the clock ticking it was clear: Newman had one play left. Seemed fitting as well, one 8-0 team making one more threat to the other 8-0 team. Interestingly enough, both teams were more even than just their record. The combined won-loss record of their eight opponents was the same for both teams — 25-39. And, of course, there’s this Rancho fear that something goes bump in the night when they play Newman.

Dunsford threw the ball toward the Newman sideline. Cougars defensive back Chris Taylor-Yamanoha backpedaled, turned around and, to his surprise, the pass was coming right to him. The freshman was given the opportunity to say later that he made a great defensive play, but the kid can’t tell a lie.

“It was a bad throw,” Taylor-Yamanoha said. “When I turned around it was right there.”

Game over. Celebration begins. Happened so fast the Cougar players had to remember to shake Newman’s hand. And after Conroy had called the team to a huddle, the coach had to ask three times for the guys to stop hooting and hollering so he could deliver his postgame speech.

“It was scary,” Conroy said through a smile.

Conroy didn’t elaborate. Didn’t need to. The game spoke for itself.

An interception return for a touchdown here, an 82-yard sprint to a touchdown there, an 85-yard kickoff return over there. The game had so many flashpoint moments like that; maybe THAT one would be the one, or maybe THAT one. Turned out all of those plays were just set-ups for the last two minutes when Rancho made sure to keep everyone in the stands by making it difficult.

After all, it was Newman they were playing, and why should it be any other way?

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.