By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
ROHNERT PARK — In the first half, the Casa Grande Gauchos beat themselves. In the end, they had no such excuse. They were beaten by a determined and opportunistic Miramonte team.
Casa Grande’s dreams of a North Coast Section football title crumbled on a frigid field at Rancho Cotate High as the top-seeded Gauchos fell to Miramonte, 41-28, in the Division 2 championship game Saturday.
Casa shot itself in the foot with penalties and turnovers in the first half, then regrouped to take a 21-14 lead in the third quarter. The game was far from over at that point, though. The Gauchos and the No. 3 Matadors traded touchdowns deep into the game, but it was Miramonte that didn’t relent. The Matadors scored 27 fourth-quarter points and sealed the win on a fumble recovery with 1:44 left.
That play was not without controversy. Down 35-28, the Gauchos were driving for what they hoped would be the tying score when JaJuan Lawson connected with Zakk Molina on a fourth-down pass. The ball came out as Molina went to his knees, and a Miramonte defender recovered. The Casa Grande coaches pleaded that Molina was down before the ball came out, but the officials saw otherwise.
Miramonte added insult to injury when Drew Anderson and Dominic Paoletti connected on a 23-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass as time expired.
“I’ll remember this team till the day I die,” Casa Grande coach Trent Herzog said to his players afterward, reflecting on the Gauchos’ 13-1 record and first-ever appearance in the section title game.
Casa finally met its match in Anderson, a tall, rangy quarterback who proved elusive in the pocket and deadly accurate when given an open receiver. He passed for 438 yards and five touchdowns, including four in the second half. The biggest came with 2:26 on the clock, when Miramonte broke a 28-28 tie on Anderson’s 11-yard scoring pass to his younger brother, Ryan, on a crossing route.
Casa Grande came into the game with 53 sacks, but didn’t once get Anderson on the ground Saturday. And if Casa had a major deficiency Saturday, it was pass coverage. Some of the Mats receivers found themselves wide open downfield.
The Gauchos’ offensive stars rose to the occasion, too, as John Porchivina ran for 167 hard-fought yards on 28 carries and Lawson passed for 194 yards while adding 117 on 13 carries. But Casa doomed itself with first-half mistakes. The top seed committed eight of its 11 penalties before halftime, and twice gave the ball away.
The first turnover was crushing. Taking over in Miramonte territory the first time they got the ball, the Gauchos were poised to score when Lawson and Porchivina mishandled a handoff on fourth-and-goal from the 2, and Will Fuller recovered for the Matadors.
Late in the first half, Casa Grande got inside the Miramonte 10-yard line again, only to have Lawson’s pass intercepted by Ray Clark.
The Matadors won their eighth NCS football title. Casa must keep waiting on its first. The Gauchos were expected to draw an invitation to the CIF NorCal championship game if they had won Saturday. Instead, they are left to reflect on what might have been — and on a season that is only slightly less magical after Saturday’s loss.
“I’m a three-sport athlete, and this was the funnest team I ever played on,” defensive end Daniel Greisen said. “It was a hell of a season. This was the best team in Casa Grande history, and we all love each other like brothers.”