NCS football: Casa Grande fights back for playoff spot

Casa Grande football coach Trent Herzog directs his team during practice, in Petaluma on Tuesday, November 11, 2014.  (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

Casa Grande football coach Trent Herzog directs his team during practice, in Petaluma on Tuesday, November 11, 2014. (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Casa Grande will get its chance for revenge against Miramonte on Saturday, but it’s not the rematch everyone envisioned at the start of the season.

Almost a year ago, Miramonte defeated the Gauchos in the North Coast Section Division 2 championship game. Both schools are back in the playoffs, but we’re a few rounds short of the title game. This is the first round of the postseason. Casa Grande enters with a 4-6 record. Miramonte, the defending section champion, is 3-7.

“I think both teams are very similar,” Casa coach Trent Herzog said. “Both teams are very well organized. Outside of scheme, it’s kind of like looking at yourself in the mirror.”

The Gauchos’ reflection is a lot prettier than it was a month ago, that’s for sure. Eighteen Redwood Empire teams will be kicking off their playoff drives this weekend. None of them have taken a stranger path than Casa Grande.

Expectations ran high for the Gauchos after last year’s campaign, a high-water mark for the program. Internally, Herzog and some of his top returning players knew those expectations were unrealistic. Yes, Casa had entered the playoffs with an undefeated record and the No. 1 seed in Division 2 in 2013. But most of the team’s top players graduated last summer, including the All-Empire offensive (JaJuan Lawson) and defensive (John Porchivina) players of the year.

The 2014 Gauchos had an experienced and accomplished offensive line. Virtually everything else was a question mark.

So perhaps no one should have been too shocked when Casa Grande opened the season with a 40-14 loss at Analy. Or followed that with a 31-0 home loss to Napa. But as the defeats mounted, the Gauchos became the talk of the local football circuit, for all the wrong reasons.

Casa Grande's Spencer Torkelson, center, takes a handoff from quarterback J.J. Anderson during practice, in Petaluma on Tuesday, November 11, 2014.   (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

Casa Grande’s Spencer Torkelson, center, takes a handoff from quarterback J.J. Anderson during practice, in Petaluma on Tuesday, November 11, 2014. (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

Last year, the team started 5-0 while outscoring opponents 159-51. This year, Casa started 0-5 and was outscored 193-34. The program seemed to be in freefall.

“I knew we had some people who didn’t know what it would take to play at this level,” senior linebacker Casey Longaker said. “You lose some of your best players — those guys were difference-makers every game. So after a season like that, you all think you’re the big shots. We kind of got it thrown right in our face at the start of the season.”

Last year’s love-fest was a distant memory.

“We felt pressure from some of our classmates, even at school,” lineman Pete Parrick said. “It’s kind of tough when your own classmates are doubting you. But we also came together as a team when we started hear those remarks. We said let’s prove them wrong — and we have. None of them thought we’d make it to the playoffs.”

Casa had other things going on this fall. Deeper things.

Herzog’s girlfriend, Michelle McIntyre, was diagnosed with a brain tumor two days before the opener against Analy. She underwent hours-long surgery Monday. Initial medical reports have been positive, and Herzog remains upbeat, but his thoughts were a bit scattered during football season. He has missed a few practices, and hasn’t logged as much time watching film as he normally would.

Even with all of the on- and off-field drama, though, Herzog knew the Gauchos’ record was deceiving. As always, they had played a highly competitive preseason schedule, and their first North Bay League games were against Rancho Cotate and Windsor, two of the hottest teams in the league.

Herzog didn’t become exasperated until the Rancho game on Sept. 26, when his team trailed 45-0 after two quarters coming off a bye week.

“At halftime I told the kids this will be a turning point,” Herzog said. “We can tuck our tails, or we can fight and win the second half. We came out in the second half and scored 10 points, and they didn’t score. They kept their starters in for pretty much the whole game. Not that their starters had to work that hard, but they kept them in. We kind of built on that.”

The next week, Casa Grande played Windsor fairly tough but lost 27-7. Then the Gauchos finally got their first win, 47-0 over Ukiah.

“We just blew them out,” Parrick said. “You could see everyone coming together. The monkey was finally off our back. We could relax a little and start to play.”

After one more bad loss, 48-7 to Cardinal Newman, Casa finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak, and two of those victories came against playoff teams Maria Carrillo and Montgomery.

Despite the worst start in memory, Casa Grande not only earned a playoff berth, it got a home game against Miramonte.

In analyzing the Gauchos’ dramatic turnaround, Herzog offers the most obvious explanation of all: The early-season schedule was just too tough for a team that lost so much talent. That said, Casa is clearly better in November than it was in early September.

Casa Grande's Casey Longaker runs the ball during practice, in Petaluma on Tuesday, November 11, 2014.   (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

Casa Grande’s Casey Longaker runs the ball during practice, in Petaluma on Tuesday, November 11, 2014. (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

“To be honest, the six teams that beat us on the season were all better teams than us – and still are,” Herzog said. “But they’re not 30 points or 20 points better now. … If we play Rancho again, they’re probably still the better team, but I guarantee it would be closer.”

As the season progressed, some of the Gauchos’ younger players found their stride. That included junior quarterback JJ Anderson, who beat out senior Brent Eger in a spirited competition for the job, and sophomore running back Spencer Torkelson, who wound up leading the team with 633 rushing yards.

Senior linebacker Casey Longaker also played a big role in the comeback. Longaker was Casa Grande’s top returning defender, but Herzog felt he played inconsistently at first. Like the coach, Longaker gets a pass. He tore the labrum in his shoulder early in the 2013 campaign and played through it all season. Longaker had surgery in February and wasn’t allowed to hit until the first game of the season.

“I kind of had to go, ‘OK, your shoulder’s OK, now play some football — and play mad,’ ” Longaker said. “That’s how I’ve been playing the last couple of wins. I’m gonna try to lead this team back to victory.”

Finally, the Gauchos got a boost when five athletes who had transferred from other schools were allowed to play, starting with the Ukiah game. Herzog said the influx gave his team added speed, depth and toughness.

Foremost among them was Semi Komaaisavai, who is listed as a junior, though there is some question about his year in school. Komaaisavai grew up in Fiji and spent a year at Piner before moving with his mother to Petaluma.

Komaaisavai is a physical safety on defense, and Casa finds ways to get him the ball on offense, too. Even more than that, he gave the Gauchos an emotional boost. After he was allowed to join the team, Komaaisavai asked Herzog if could lead the players in the haka, the traditional Maori war dance that has spread to other Pacific islands. It became a weekly ritual for the Casa players.

As the Gauchos drew closer, they played better.

Anything can happen in the playoffs, but the feeling is far different for Casa Grande this year. The Gauchos don’t have as much talent as they boasted last year, especially at the skill positions. They also don’t have the pressures and expectations they carried on their shoulders a year ago. “This year, we’re happy to be there, but we’re not happy to play only one round,” Herzog said. “We want to make a statement and win some games. At the end, we want to look back and say hey, look at where we started, and look at where we’re at now.”

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