NCS Division 2 football: Clayton Valley's high-scoring offense will challenge Rancho's defense

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

By now, after more hours of film study than he’d care to admit, Rancho Cotate coach Ed Conroy is well-steeped in the details of Clayton Valley football. He can tell you all about the Eagles’ version of the double-wing offense, about their tendencies in short yardage and the varied ways they use star running back Joe Protheroe.

One thing Conroy can’t tell you about Clayton Valley: Who the punter is.

“I’m challenged to find a punter on film,” Conroy said. “They just don’t do it.”

For the record, backup quarterback Garrett Nelson is the Eagles’ punter. But they probably don’t expect to use him much in that capacity when they face the Cougars in the North Coast Section Division 2 championship game Friday night at Diablo Valley College. Clayton Valley is used to putting the ball in the end zone.

The Concord team has scored 630 points this season, an average of 52.5 per game. The Eagles haven’t scored fewer than 40 in a game since a season-opening loss. On paper, that presents a classic Hummer-vs.-wall matchup against Rancho Cotate and its formidable defense. The Cougars have allowed 115 points in 13 games, an average of 8.8.

So there’s a pretty good chance Clayton Valley will score somewhat more than 8 points, and somewhat fewer than 53. The precise number will go a long way in determining the NCS D2 champion.

Rancho is looking for its first section title since 2002. Clayton Valley is seeking its first ever.

Though the Eagles want to win this game just as fiercely as Rancho Cotate, in a sense their season is already a success. Coming off a 6-5 campaign in 2011, with a new coach stepping in for the respected Herc Pardi, they weren’t expected to get this far.

Their turnaround is a tribute to hard-driving new coach Tim Murphy, whose first year at Clayton Valley followed a strange and nomadic offseason.

Murphy built his reputation by molding Clovis East into a Central Valley powerhouse. He took the school to two Central Section titles and never lost back-to-back games in his first eight years there, starting in 2001. But he took a leave of absence in 2009, and the team wasn’t the same after he came back for the next two seasons.

Murphy’s ailing father was in the Bay Area, as was his daughter, and the coach’s attention was divided.

He quit Clovis East last November and, with several programs reportedly interested, soon took a job coaching at Hunter High in West Valley City, Utah, only to step down from that position as well. He accepted a job at Ygnacio Valley in Concord (where he coached previously) in January — before leaving that post for Clayton Valley in May. That’s four schools in six months.

If Murphy ruffled some feathers with his broken-field run, his impact on Clayton Valley was obvious from the start. Despite an emphasis on relentless weightlifting and conditioning — Murphy’s NFL-caliber biceps show that he practices what he preaches — and challenging up-tempo practices, the Eagles’ roster grew from 48 boys in 2011 to 62 this year. The numbers were way up for the league-champion JV team, too.

“They were on board,” Murphy said of his players. “People here to remember what we did at Ygnacio Valley. And the Clovis name is so big. If you win a section championship at Clovis, it’s like you won the Super Bowl.”

The wins came nearly as quickly as the buy-in at Clayton Valley. After opening with a 40-27 loss at Pittsburg, a good D1 team, the Eagles have rattled off 11 consecutive wins. That record landed them the No. 1 seed in D2 — a controversial distinction, at least in Rohnert Park. Murphy acknowledged it just as easily could have gone to undefeated Rancho Cotate.

The Clayton Valley athletes like to call themselves the Ugly Eagles, lending a blue-collar vibe to the program. But that offense is as intricate as it is potent.

Murphy runs the double wing — named for the two players set back and just outside the tackles, frequently pivoted toward the center — but has modified it greatly over the years. The formation traditionally employs a direct snap. Clayton Valley does it out of the shotgun.

More often than not, the ball ends up in the hands of Protheroe, who has run for 2,779 yards and 31 touchdowns this season. He seems to be saving his best for the Eagles’ biggest games. The senior gained a school-record 427 yards and scored five touchdowns against Dublin in the NCS quarterfinals, and had 261 versus Concord in the semifinals last week, helping to turn a 14-14 halftime tie into a 49-22 victory for Clayton Valley.

“He can break tackles, and he can break it long,” Murphy said of Protheroe. “He has great vision. He utilizes his O-line real well. And the thing about Joe, he’s a competitor. I’ve had other featured backs, but nothing like this kid. He’s a joy to coach.”

Protheroe is not a one-man show, however. His brother, junior quarterback Michael Protheroe, doesn’t throw the ball a lot. But he has been highly effective when he does, averaging an absurd 20 yards per attempt in the regular season.

Conroy said he has been urging his defensive players not to lose focus, even if they get fooled by a misdirection or decoy — because they will almost certainly be fooled at some point.

“They’re very disciplined in their approach, very sound,” Conroy said. “Their coaching staff does a great job. This is probably the best kind of toss or double wing we’ve seen. It’s really not a true double wing; they have kind of their own style. They’re not huge.

They’re just really disciplined in their approach and their understanding of what they’re trying to do.”

Ultimately, what they’re trying to do is win a section championship, and perhaps get an invitation to the D2 state championship game.

Rancho Cotate is a very different team with a highly similar goal.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.