Padecky: Rancho Cotate's Luque busts free in NCS football semis

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Big? Nope. Bruising? Doesn’t appear so. Inside runner? At 5-foot-9, 160 pounds? Not especially. Yet Jalon Luque of Rancho Cotate might as well be Tarzan with the football when he touches it. Inside or outside, short yardage or a long stomp, Luque is like that saying they have about the adjustable hat size — one size fits all. That’s Luque with the football. He’s one runner good for any occasion.

“Jalon will run into you as hard as he will run around you,” said Rancho coach Ed Conroy.

Saturday night Luque set a Rancho single-game rushing record with 272 yards in 19 carries, the big gainer and the game-decider being a 98-yard track meet touchdown in the third quarter. Luque’s stout 160-pound body, along with a stout Cougar defense, propelled Rancho to a 30-17 victory over Northgate. Rancho now will play for the NCS Division 2 championship at 7 p.m. Friday against Clayton Valley at Diablo Valley College.

“Every time I touch the ball,” Luque said, “I feel I can break it.”

Whether someone throws a 98-yard touchdown pass or runs for the same distance the game’s momentum can shift dramatically — in the time it takes to complete the play, as a matter of fact. And it is was in the third quarter in a game that looked like a field goal might win it. Northgate and Rancho were 10-10 at halftime. Luque had five carries for 47, a nice 7.3 average per carry but modest totals by Luque’s past performances. Luque came into the game averaging 11 yards a carry.

“I was sick the whole game,” Luque said. “I have asthma and I had run out of my medication. I took too much Albuterol (to compensate) and I got sick on the sidelines.”

About four times, Luque said, he vomited on the sidelines.

The third quarter began with the promise of a close game staying close. Then, in the space of 5½ minutes, everything changed and the game swung decisively and permanently to the Cougars’ side.

With 10:44 in the third Cougars defensive back Joshua Belda intercepted Northgate quarterback Joe Pelletier at the Rancho 39.

Six plays later, Rancho quarterback Michael Courchaine hit Carlos Soto with a 25-yard touchdown pass. At halftime, Soto came to Conroy to plead his case.

“Carlos told me he could beat his man and that we should call a play,” Conroy said.

Soto wasn’t the first and won’t be the last wide receiver to call a play for himself. And after Soto’s catch, Conroy will be sure to listen to his wideout again.

The game was 17-10, still a game, only a touchdown separating the NCS semifinalists. But on the fifth play after having received the kickoff, Pelletier threw another interception. It was again to Belda but this time a howl arose from the Rancho sideline. It was a fourth down pass and Belda caught it at the Rancho 1. Shoulda knocked it down was the entreaty. Rancho would have started from its own 38 instead of the 1.

Yes, that might have been the wise call but in the heat of the game, with a pick right there for the taking, the temptation to snatch is hard to resist.

Especially after what happened next. After Courchaine gained a yard to the 2, Luque got the ball and looked downfield.

“I saw a big hole,” he said. “I just paused for the blocking to develop.”

Luque did and then sprinted, almost in a straight line, untouched to the end zone 98 yards away. He took a close game and turned it over to the Cougars. With Northgate a predominant running team, the Broncos were ill-equipped to play catch up. It was those two Belda interceptions and then the Luque back-breaker; Rancho played like the favorite they were expected to be in this game.

And there was Luque and his 160 pounds right in the middle of it.

“Jalon has great vision, great balance and he is really tough,” Conroy said.

Conroy said if he had known how sick Luque was, he would have pulled him from the game long before Luque’s 22-yard run late in the fourth quarter. But Luque was nearing Rancho’s single-game rushing record and Conroy wanted him to have it. When Conroy did remove Luque after that 22-yard gain, the running back took off his helmet and discarded it like it was a lead weight.

He was toast.

“I was about 80 percent,” said Luque, referring to his asthma problem.

A running team, the Cougars gained 65 yards on the ground from someone other than Luque. For the season, Luque now has carried the ball 150 times and gained 1,723. He’s averaging 11.5 yards a carry. And he has 22 touchdowns to go with it.

“He’s an animal,” said Cougar defensive back Thomas Sory.

For a guy who ran for 272 yards while feeling sick, yes, Jalon Luque was something other than human. Northgate is probably still trying to figure that one out, as Luque’s toughness is as difficult to define as it was to catch him.

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