By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
PETALUMA – It was halftime at the Casa Grande-Montgomery NCS playoff game Saturday night. The score was 14-13, Casa. And no one had a clue if Casa was going to come awake or stay sleeping.
The Gauchos were playing just good enough to win but, as the accompanying corollary, that meant they also were so very close to playing just bad enough to lose.
That undefeated season, that dream of being a NCS champion, it was all there hanging in the balance. Montgomery was playing smart; Casa meanwhile had six penalties. Montgomery was pushing its skill hard. Casa was pushing ordinary, something quite unlike a team that was 12-0 and the top-rated team in Division 2.
“At halftime I told them I was disappointed,” said Casa head coach Trent Herzog. “We weren’t playing Casa football. We had something like six penalties. We could have had five more. We could have had 80 yards worth of penalties. We needed to play smart. We needed to eliminate physical mistakes.”
Casa was the bigger team but the Gauchos didn’t play like it in the first half. “Get physical!” Herzog said to his team. Herzog knew what all coaches know: A good big man over time will wear down and dominate a smaller good man. It’s elemental football strategy. Sometimes football doesn’t have to be sophisticated.
So what happened?
Casa took the opening second-half kickoff and ran five times — 7, 18, 12, 13, 33 yards — the last run a touchdown to open it up to 21-13. Monty went three and out. Casa came back on the next series and ran 11 out of 12 plays to score again, chewing up almost six minutes in those 68 yards.
“We tired them out,” Herzog said. “We wore them down.”
In other words, at halftime, the Gauchos put on their big-boy pants.
“That’s just about it,” said Casa running back Cody Hughson.
The Gauchos asserted their will and as happens so often, they did it at the line of scrimmage, a place that rarely receives attention or praise. But center Julian Lopez (225 pounds), guards Brendan Jackson (285) and Peter Parrick (290) and tackles Alec Runge (225) and Greg Poteracke (270) typically outweighed Monty’s lineman by 50 pounds. At least.
Yes, Casa running back John Porchivina had another stellar night, running for four touchdowns. (He also intercepted a pass and returned it for a fifth score.) Sure, once Porchivina entered the Viking secondary, his speed made him a blur for Monty’s defenders.
But make no mistake: Casa muscled this victory. Herzog appealed to his team’s pride, reminding them that the team they had to overcome was not so much Montgomery as it was themselves.
“It takes us some time to get rolling when we start a game,” Hughson said. “But when we do get there, we’re hard to stop.”
When the game ended, when the rolling stopped, Casa had left that first half far behind. It scored 28 unanswered points in the second half and won going away, 42-13.
“Look at my smile now!” Herzog came up to me afterwards. I saw him last week after the Windsor rout, his game face scrunched up in a knot even though they won handily, and teased him about lightening up.
Herzog had no problem shining a smile after this game. Why? The Gauchos hadn’t won the NCS title. Miramonte next Saturday will give Casa all it needs. So why?
Because the Gauchos responded under pressure in their biggest game thus far of the season. Because the players responded to their coach’s entreaties. Because the players took it up a notch, probably a couple notches actually. It’s what ambitious players with ambitious dreams do.
It’s how teams that consider themselves champions respond to pressure. Sounds like a cliché and, frankly, it is — except to the teams that rise and meet the moment.
So that’s why Herzog removed his game face for just a moment. His team showed him it could rally. It showed him what, frankly, it needed to show him: That they could respond to subpar play. The Gauchos haven’t had to do it that much this season.
The Montgomery victory was good preparation for next week, when Casa faces off against Miramonte for the Division 2 NCS title at Rancho Cotate.
“I saw Miramonte Friday night,” Herzog said. “They have a great passing attack. They have a quarterback who can throw and receivers who can catch. We are going to have our hands full.”
That last sentence is right out of the coach’s handbook. It’s true enough. What’s also true is that Miramonte will have its hands full with the Gauchos. They are big, physical, fast and as Saturday night showed, capable of digging deep for their special talent.
“I was told last week,” Herzog said, “that if we win the NCS title, we’ll play the next week at Rancho again for the Northern California championship. But I don’t want my kids spending any time thinking about that.”
Their mind could wander into such glory thoughts but the bet here is, it won’t happen. The Casa players now have first-hand evidence what happens when their mind wanders, when they forget to put on their big-boy pants.
Unless of course they want to do this all over again next weekend.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.