By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
There was just under 3 minutes left in the third quarter Saturday night when Cardinal Newman’s Kevin Lucey took a kickoff return and motored down the Newman sideline. Lucey was swift, but out of nowhere came a player from El Cerrito. At least it seemed he came out of nowhere, like a helicopter had just dropped him on the field. The El Cerrito kid closed fast and drove Lucey out of bounds.
Lucey returned the kick 41 yards, a nice return no matter how you look at it, but a statement was made. It was a statement made throughout the game, one that ran through like a hot wire from snap to snap, play to play, to where it felt overwhelming at times, unfair you might even say.
“The guy’s fast but he ain’t that fast,” said the El Cerrito player to no one in particular. “He ain’t gonna beat me in a race.”
The player didn’t scream or gesture. He couldn’t have been accused of bragging. He couldn’t because he was telling the truth.
“You can’t coach fast,” Newman defensive coordinator Dennis Bruno said.
Speed is a gift that can’t be obtained in the weight room or with extra film study. Speed is like the best deodorant. It makes everything smell better. El Cerrito had 10 penalties. El Cerrito looked to be winging it sometimes, like sending out five guys out to catch the ball and let’s see what happens next. Passes were thrown into double coverage. Two receivers might find themselves standing next to each other, both trying to catch the same pass.
Whatever. Didn’t matter because when El Cerrito beat Newman 35-7, you might say it was a moving experience. The Gauchos were fast, elusive and never stood around that much. To see that team speed always points to a truism. The fast team never gets tired, but the team that does all the chasing does.
Newman was gassed at the end on Saturday night. That helped explain the 35 unanswered points. The two fumbles in the fourth quarter. The bad snaps from center. Chasing a rabbit could be exhausting work because it changes direction in an eye blink. El Cerrito quarterback Keilan Benjamin was the nastiest, hardest-to-catch out there. Benjamin changed direction and speeds quite a lot like Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
“They just ran out of steam,” El Cerrito coach Kenny Kahn said.
Kahn was talking about the Newman defense, but he could have been talking about both sides the ball. That El Cerrito — which was the Division 3 North Coast Section runner-up last year — was that dominant was no surprise. The Gauchos have nearly the entire team back from 2012. A year older, a year faster, El Cerrito is a well-known player in Northern California. Everyone expects El Cerrito to be playing for the D3 title.
And the Gauchos are exactly the opponent Newman coach Paul Cronin wanted in the preseason. El Cerrito was a test Cronin wanted to see if his players could pass.
“I wanted to see if they were courageous enough to play a great team,” Cronin said. “And what did I see? Our kids have great courage. Great courage. Our defense was exceptional.”
Fact: Newman played El Cerrito even in the first half. The Cardinals swarmed to the ball, knowing El Cerrito had too much speed for any one defender. The Cardinals were sure tacklers. Much of that is based on two things — proper tackling technique and sheer will to make that happen. Newman exhibited both.
How Newman responded, however, to a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter did not please Cronin. The 32-yard field goal, if made, would have made the score 14-10 El Cerrito. Instead it was blocked and returned for a touchdown. A four-point game now became a 14-point game and the Cardinals played as if punched in the gut.
“Sudden change is something you have to deal with in football,” Cronin said. “And we didn’t do a good job of it. That’s why we’ll learn from it and get better.”
In a very real sense El Cerrito, a veteran, successful and talented team, was a litmus test for Newman. How would Newman fare? How much would Newman need to improve? How would they handle adversity? How would they deal with special problems posed by all that team speed?
“Of probably the 130 games I’ve coached since I have been here,” Cronin said, “I’d say there were 10 teams that were faster than El Cerrito, teams like Oaks Christian. But El Cerrito is right up there. And their quarterback is a special player as well. But I know we’ll learn from this and improve.”
If for no other motivation than this: Newman very well could play El Cerrito in the NCS playoffs. El Cerrito is a D3 team. Newman is D4 but Cronin typically plays up to D3. Yes, in a very real sense, El Cerrito is Newman’s future.
“Hopefully we’ll see you in the playoffs,” Kahn said to Cronin after the game.
Kahn didn’t say that in a condescending way, as if Newman were chumps to be taken advantage of. Rather, it was the opposite intent for Kahn.
“I really admire their program,” Kahn said. “That’s why I scheduled them now. I wanted to see how good we are.”
Saturday night Kahn found out. On Sept. 14 it was clear who the better team was. But as Cronin and Kahn both know, nothing is ever won in September. Only lessons learned. At this point Cardinal Newman will have more studying to do than El Cerrito.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.