Rancho falls to Clayton Valley 35-7, loses bid for title


PLEASANT HILL — It was No.1 vs. No. 2 in the North Coast Section Division 2 football playoffs, and the world — or at least our soggy little slice of it — settled in for a highly anticipated championship game.

But the clash of titans never materialized. Rancho Cotate turned over the ball five times, including three in the first half that led to short-field Clayton Valley touchdowns. The Cougars fell behind 35-0 and eventually succumbed 35-7 on Friday night at Diablo Valley College.

“Five turnovers — against a good team, you can’t really have one turnover,” Rancho coach Ed Conroy said afterward. “Especially this team. They did a tremendous job. We couldn’t respond sometimes.”

The top-seeded Eagles proved to be as good as advertised. Their Double Wing offense gave the Cougars’ defense fits. Joe Protheroe rushed for 102 yards on 23 carries, but it seemed like more because he got the tough yards when Clayton Valley needed it. Protheroe scored four times, including a 93-yard kickoff return, and his brother Michael Protheroe completed 3 of 5 passes for 83 yards and another touchdown.

Rancho Cotate came into the game giving up an average of just 8.8 points, but was frustrated and thrown off-balance by the Clayton Valley attack. Cougars defenders, used to winning one-on-one battles, complained they were routinely getting hit by two or three players, and from unpredictable angles.

“They outman you,” said senior defensive lineman A.J. Davison, who played more than half of the game with what may turn out to be fractured ribs. “They just bring that whole right side to the left side. And you can stop so much, but when they outnumber you, and you’re getting triple- and double-teamed, it’s hard to do.”

The loss left the Cougars heartbroken. This was a confident, undefeated team with dreams of advancing to the newly established NorCal regional championship game. Instead, it is Clayton Valley waiting to get that news after capturing its first section title.

“It feels unreal. Feels like a nightmare,” Rancho senior linebacker Fono Misi said. “I feel like I’m gonna wake up in the morning, it’s championship game tomorrow. To go undefeated, and this is our only loss, the big game?”

Both teams left the field 12-1.

The Cougars dug themselves a hole right from the start. Near midfield just a couple of minutes in, quarterback Michael Courchaine threw a slant route that was intercepted by Clayton Valley’s Curtis Grant, who returned the ball to the Rancho Cotate 19-yard line. Joe Protheroe took it in from 9 yards out to give his team a 7-0 lead.

After stopping the Cougars on downs, the Eagles mounted their only sustained scoring drive of the half, converting a pair of fourth-down plays en route to Protheroe’s 12-yard scoring run. Rancho immediately lost the ball again on a high shotgun snap that sailed over Cour-chaine’s head. Clayton Valley’s Logan Bangert recovered at the Cougars 2-yard line, and Protheroe scored his third touchdown on the next play.

The Eagles had missed the extra point after Protheroe’s second TD, but Grant ran around left end for a 2-point conversion after the third, making it 21-0 Clayton Valley.

Late in the first half, Courchaine tried to get the ball to a receiver down the left sideline, and Garrett Nelson intercepted. A few plays later, Mich-ael Protheroe found the wide-open Grant for a 23-yard scoring pass and Clayton Valley had a commanding 28-0 lead.
The rain came and went all evening, making it hard to grip the football, but Conroy wouldn’t use that as an excuse for the turnovers.

“Early on it was raining,” he said. “But you know what? They didn’t fumble the football as often as we did, or throw interceptions. The interceptions are probably on me in that situation.”

The backbreaker came right away in the third quarter. After the Eagles called a timeout before the second-half kickoff, Joe Protheroe fielded the ball at his 7-yard line, slipped a tackle, picked up a convoy of blockers down the right sideline and didn’t stop until he was in the end zone.

Rancho Cotate finally scored in the third quarter, on a 1-yard plunge by Tanoa Peleti.

Any hopes of a stirring comeback were crushed early in the fourth quarter when Courchaine was hit as attempted to throw. The ball came loose and was ruled a fumble, and Ruben Rincon recovered for Clayton Valley.

Rancho’s Jalon Luque, who gained 136 yards on 24 rushing attempts, also lost a fumble late in the game. The elusive Luque finished the season with 2,081 yards.

Addressing his players afterward, first-year Clayton Valley coach Tim Murphy said, “That 12-0 team didn’t know what hit ’em.”
It would have been hard for the Cougars to argue after this one-side title game.

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