By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For the second year in a row, Rancho Cotate opened the North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs with an avalanche of fumbles. For the second year in a row, the Cougars were talented enough to bury their mistakes and move on.
They beat visiting Las Lomas 21-14 in a steady downpour on Friday night, conjuring memories of 2011’s 20-7 victory over Pinole Valley.
“This was the slipperiest game I’ve ever been in,” said Rancho Cotate quarterback Michael Courchaine, who had trouble with center snaps all night. “I told the coaches, the ball just got slipperier and slipperier as the game went on.”
Having survived, second-seeded Rancho Cotate will next host a semifinal game against the winner of Saturday’s game between Northgate and Newark Memorial.
In the most recent installment of sloppy success, the Cougars fumbled nine times. Maddeningly, four of them came in succession late in the game when Rancho nursed a 21-7 lead and was trying to run out the clock. The first three were dropped snaps by Courchaine; he got two of them back, and running back Jalon Luque fell on the third.
The fourth of those fumbles came when punter Rodrigo Perez dropped a long snap near his own goal line. He picked it up and hurriedly attempted a punt, but No. 7 seed Las Lomas blocked it and recovered at the Rancho 5-yard line. Three plays later, Knights quarterback Adam Wood scored his second touchdown on a 1-yard keeper, cutting the deficit to seven points with 1:31 left in the game.
Las Lomas got an extra 15 yards for a roughing-the-kicker infraction on the extra point — Rancho’s only penalty of the game — and set up for an onside kick.
It was a nervous moment for the Cougars, who had already been victimized by one Knights onside kick to start the second half.
This time, Courchaine recovered for Rancho Cotate — you have to like a quarterback who will mix it up on special teams — as Las Lomas was called for an illegal touch. The Knights were out of timeouts, and the home team was able to kill the clock.
The first half was a study in resilience for Rancho. Las Lomas pushed the ball into Cougars territory on each of its first four possessions, but had nothing to show for it. Rancho Cotate got an interception by linebacker Fono Misi and blocked a 47-yard field-goal attempt, and the Knights punted twice.
No surprise on this strange night, one of those punts became an adventure for the Cougars, as the ball skipped off of return man Luque and into the end zone. Luque got it back after a mad scramble, and officials ruled it a touchback. After the game, the referee explained that it was the momentum of the punt that carried the ball into the end zone, not Luque’s contact, so the play was not a safety.
The game was scoreless until 1:08 before halftime, when Courchaine ended a 60-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Chris Taylor-Yamanoha on a fade route. It was Courchaine’s only completion of the game. He threw three passes, none after halftime.
After the onside kick to start the third quarter, Las Lomas powered down the field to tie the game at 7-7, with Wood doing most of the running. Rancho Cotate came right back with an 84-yard drive to regain the lead, Luque taking it the final 7 yards with help from one of his favored spin moves.
The two drives ate up almost the entire third quarter.
The Cougars’ next touchdown drive was a little quicker: one play, as Luque exploited a hole up the middle and outran the Knights for a 66-yard touchdown that made the score 21-7. Early in the game, Conroy said, Las Lomas defensive lineman Derrick Stom was giving Rancho fits. The Cougars made some adjustments and finally got the dangerous Luque some daylight. He finished with 184 yards on 18 carries.
His second touchdown was all the more important after those late fumbles put the Knights back in business. The fumbling got so out of hand that it had Conroy wondering whether his team was using the wrong type of ball for the conditions.
“We gotta find out what it is,” the coach said. “Whether it was the ball — we use a composite ball, and whether it just became slippery in the rain. I mean, they didn’t seem to have as many problems. They had a leather ball. So I don’t know, we might have to find out if that ball is way slipperier.”
Las Lomas did have five fumbles of its own, though the Walnut Creek team didn’t lose any.
Misi had another suggestion for Rancho Cotate (11-0). “We might have to all come out with hoses at practice, because it could rain more in the playoffs,” he said.
The best remedy for poor ball protection, of course, is stout defense, and the Cougars had it. They held the Knights (5-7) to 214 total yards, sacked Wood three times and made plays at key points of the game — like forcing consecutive incompletions at the Rancho Cotate 10-yard line to take possession with 4:28 left in the game.
“Our defense was great,” Courchaine said. “And defense wins championships.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.