Rancho Cotate 21, Alhambra 14: Cougars hang on to win season opener

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

ROHNERT PARK — Rancho Cotate coach Ed Conroy told his players before they faced Alhambra on Friday night: “If we win, we’re going to win ugly.”

His reaction afterward: “It doesn’t get any uglier than that.”

The Cougars won no beauty contests, but they did win their season opener, outlasting the visiting Bulldogs when senior linebacker Tanoa Peleti tipped a fourth-down pass in the end zone with 1:09 left in the game.

Rancho Cotate was on the ropes when Alhambra drove from its 23 to the Rancho 6 in the closing minutes. But Bulldogs quarterback Joshua Evans, who passed for 243 yards, was injured on the final drive, and it was his backup, Mark Azevedo, who threw that last pass. It was Azevedo’s only pass of the game.

Thanks to Peleti’s fingertips, the Cougars eked out a win on a night when they got fooled by an onside kick to open the game, botched a field-goal attempt that could have sewn up the game in the fourth quarter, and threw eight passes without a completion in the second half before finally getting a 12-yard completion on their final attempt of the game.

The lone second-half completion was a big one, though. Gunner Mefferd’s 12-yard strike to sophomore Chris Taylor-Yamanoha gave the Cougars a first down inside of a minute and allowed them to run out the clock.

Rancho Cotate built a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter on a pair of touchdown passes by Mefferd, one each to Taylor-Yamanoha and Cale Tuttle.

But Alhambra fought back behind Evans’ pinpoint passing, knotting the game at 14-14 just before halftime on the junior’s 31-yard scoring pass to Grant Hill, followed by a complete pass on a 2-point conversion attempt.

The Cougars scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2:34 left in the third quarter on a 12-yard run by Carlos Franco, and ultimately made it hold up. But it got a little scary along the way.

Rancho seemed to have the game wrapped up in the fourth quarter, mounting a 67-yard drive that ate up the first 8:12 of the quarter. The Cougars were helped by two timely Bulldogs penalties — pass interference on a third-and-9 incompletion, and a crushing 15-yarder when Alhambra failed to get its defense off the field in time on a Rancho Cotate punt.

After all that, though, the Cougars came up empty when a bad snap disrupted their 33-yard field-goal attempt, and Alhambra’s Ciazonne Ratto-Foster fell on the loose ball for a turnover. Evans quickly moved his team down the field before limping to the sidelines after taking a hit deep in Rancho territory.

Conroy wasn’t entirely surprised by his team’s uneven play, noting that the Cougars had a poor week of preparation.

“We struggled a little in practice — with tempo and intensity,” Conroy said. “We’ve got to get better, or we’re not gonna be very good. But they’re good kids. They’ve just got to work a little harder. We’re a little young and inexperienced.”

After getting off to slow start, Evans caught fire in the second quarter, passing for 135 yards in the period.

At halftime, it was Peleti who suggested to Conroy that Rancho Cotate not blitz as much in the second half. The Cougars dropped more men into coverage, drew up a plan to take dangerous receiver Zachary Keever out of the game and changed the swing of the game. Evans was 5 of 13 for 60 yards in the second half.

Malik Newton rushed for 102 yards on 14 carries for Rancho, which is 1-0. Alhambra fell to 0-1-1.

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

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