Padecky: Rancho ready to take its shot at NCS football title

It happened more than once this week at Rancho Cotate High School. A teacher will call on a student. The student will not respond. His eyes will have that faraway, glassy look. The teacher will repeat the kid’s name, a bit louder, a bit more firm. Typically, teachers grow frustrated at having a student absent while seated in the classroom. But this is not a typical situation.

“You do this,” said wide receiver Carlos Soto, tilting his head to the side, his palms slightly raised. It is the essence of non-verbal communication. The teacher nods, maybe even smiles. It’s a football player who is distant.

“It’s like ‘OK, OK, we get it,’” Soto said. The teacher backs off the throttle. One teacher even responded by saying, “Go ahead and kick ass!”

It’s not class-as-usual, not when your school is playing for an NCS football championship, not for Soto and his teammates, who will be playing Clayton Valley for the Division 2 title Friday night at Diablo Valley College. It can’t be, because there’s too much backstory for Rancho right now, too much has gone on long before tonight arrived and the players can’t shed it and won’t shed it. Their past imprints every step they take, leaving a deep footprint that would make Bigfoot proud.

“It happened every day during the summer,” said lineman A.J. Davidson. “And it was more than one player.”

Five days a week, from the end of school in May until fall practice in August, the players worked out. They worked themselves to the point players would get sick to their stomach and lose it right there on the field. Davidson emphasized it happened every day and it happened to more than one player. He was very clear about that.

So, when running Jalon Luque got sick on the sideline last Saturday night against Northgate, from taking too much asthma medication, “we thought nothing of it,” Davidson said. “We’ve seen a lot of that.”

Committed football players, even in high school, push themselves to extremes. But to do it every day for the better part of four months, to where decorating the field with lunch is an anticipated activity, there must be more behind it. There is. It’s Dec. 12, 2010. Rancho played Concord that night at the Oakland Coliseum for the Division 2 title. Concord won, 40-37, with Rancho having the ball on the Concord 21 when time ran out.

Fono Misi, Nick Reynolds, Davidson and Soto were sophomores on that team. To get that close to their dream, to have the clock beat them, not Concord, the four players have never forgotten that. Now seniors and team leaders, the quartet have practically taped a memory picture inside their brain.

To that, add last year when the Cougars lost 24-14 to Concord in the NCS semifinals. Rancho was penalized 14 times and turned the ball four times. Afterward, a single refrain was uttered in the locker room.

“The seniors were saying, ‘That was our last chance’” Davidson said. “I can see why they said it, but we (returning players) said to ourselves, ‘no, it wasn’t our last chance.’”

Which brings us to the last nudge behind Rancho, unbeaten in 13 games, drooling for the 2012 title: Shae Smith.

Smith was going to be the center and defensive end on this team. While players like Misi, Reynolds and Davidson are especially known for playing at a high intensity, Smith was the gold standard. The 5-foot-10, 225-pound senior was the Energizer Bunny.

Then Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp.

“I think the guys play as much for Shae,” said coach Ed Conroy, “as they do for anything else.”

With Smith and those two NCS defeats their running companions, Rancho has more going for it than rolling an emotional snowball toward Clayton Valley. A logical place to start is with running back Jalon Luque, who needs just 55 yards rushing tonight to be the first player in school history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

“It’s so much fun to block for him,” Davidson said. “There’s no way someone can tackle him in the open field.”
“When I’m going downfield to block for him,” Soto said, “I like looking at the cornerback or free safety’s eyes. When they open up real big I know Jalon is right behind me.”

Luque, all 5-foot-9, 160 pounds of him, has yet to learn how to swagger, due in large part to a keen appreciation of the help he needs every time he carries the ball.

“I have to give it to my blockers because the hole in front of me is this big,” Luque said, his arms at maximum extension.

No story about the 2012 Rancho Cotate Cougars would be complete without a few words about Misi at linebacker.

“(Assistant coach) Les Richardson likes to say ‘if they (defensive linemen) screw it up, Fono is there to mop it up,’” Conroy said. “Fono just has great football instincts. He’s going like a million miles an hour to a spot while other kids are thinking how to get there.”

Misi is the point of the spear of a defense that has allowed fewer than nine points (8.8) a game. That defense will face its biggest test of the season in Clayton Valley. It’s a classic matchup: a great running team against a great run defense.

“What they do on offense scares the hell out of me,” Conroy said.

Clayton Valley runs crossing patterns, misdirection plays, delayed handoffs. Deception is at the center of their intent. The Eagles are good, fast and disciplined. They give defenses a moment of pause, something to consider. Much of their success is making a defense hesitate, unsure where to go. That leads to passivity.

Which provides an interesting contrast to Rancho’s defense.

For example, what makes a good defense like Rancho’s?

“Tear their head off,” Davidson said. “See the ball, hit the ball.”

Gosh, that doesn’t sound passive. Which is why this game should be interesting to anyone who loves football: The meek shall not inherit the NCS Division 2 championship.

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