Kerry Benefield: Rancho QB Mefferd has Cougars standing tall

Gunner Mefferd says the Rancho Cotate Cougars have had one hiccup this season.

But I’ll bet it’s not the one you were thinking of — the one when he was knocked out cold in the Vanden game, taken to the hospital and out of commission for weeks. Not that hiccup.

The hiccup Mefferd is referring to is the Cougars’ Oct. 17 loss to Maria Carrillo. The 34-28 loss sent a ripple of whispers through the NBL: “Was this Rancho team for real or did Carrillo expose them as something lesser?”

And beyond those whispers, the loss played a determining role in the Cougars’ shared league title with rival Cardinal Newman. The Cardinals had drawn a higher tiebreaker number at a preseason meeting of league officials meaning that as far as the NCS playoffs are concerned, Cardinal Newman won league despite the fact that Rancho beat Newman in their one head-to-head matchup. Got that? So Rancho ended up getting a No. 7 seed and a first round game against No. 10 Kennedy. Good deal, right, No. 7 vs. No. 10? Well, in this case it meant a long bus ride to Fremont for the Cougars. The Cougars ended up winning 38-13 but any road trip a team can avoid early on in the playoffs certainly helps.

So, yeah, that loss hurt.

But it also might have helped.

“We haven’t lost a game since we lost to Carrillo,” Mefferd said. “We’re in the third round of the playoffs. Last year we were one and done. I thought that was kind of a wakeup call for us. Anything can happen on any given day. You can’t go in and say ‘OK, this is ours.’ You need to earn it. That was our wakeup call.”

It’s not the only time Mefferd has had to be woken up this season. The other time was that other hiccup this year.

The one when No. 15 was carted off the field, the one of which he remembers nothing between squeezing his dad’s hand on the field to waking up in the hospital.

Rancho was playing Vanden High in Fairfield when Mefferd rolled out to unfurl a pass. He let go of the ball and stopped but the guy giving chase didn’t. Mefferd was spun and sent crashing to the turf.

“He didn’t hit me,” he said. “I hit the ground harder than anything.”

“It was a hard tackle, not dirty,” said veteran Rancho coach Ed Conroy.

Mefferd was out two full games and senior Cooper Nicks took the reins. He led the team to wins against American Canyon and Casa Grande before sharing time with Mefferd in the Montgomery game and turning the team back over to Mefferd against Newman.

“I wasn’t worried about them at all,” Mefferd said of the squad playing without him. “I think we have a team full of great players. There is not one great standout that carries the team.”

And anybody who stands behind center for the Cougars has a bounty of riches as far as targets go.

Want long yardage? Justin Zinnerman (you might be familiar with the senior’s work as a high jumper who has cleared 6 feet, 10 inches) has 11 catches for 358 yards. And senior Joey Trono averages more than 11 yards per catch. But Mefferd’s favorite target is fellow junior Chris Taylor-Yamanoha who averages 63 receiving yards per game and has 11 receiving touchdowns this season.

Pals since seventh grade, Mefferd said Taylor-Yamanoha will pull of a gravity-defying snag, scamper for extra yards then run back into the huddle as if nothing happened, just ready for the next play.

“He’s a very hard worker,” Mefferd said.

All of the Cougars will have to be at their best to take down a solid, disciplined Marin Catholic squad Saturday.

After opening the season with two losses, Marin Catholic has torn through its competition, outscoring opponents 418-83. The Wildcats lost 3-0 to Justin-Siena in the first week of October but haven’t been threatened otherwise.

“On defense, we need to find a way to slow them down a little bit,” Conroy said.

“This is the kind of game that could turn on an interception or fumble or blocked kick,” he said. “Or an injury. A key guy gets hurt? You just don’t know.”

But Mefferd and the Cougars have lived through what happens when a key player gets hurt and they have come through unscathed.

That’s not to say Mefferd wants to be standing on the sideline again any time soon.

The only way Rancho can keep this thing going is to dispatch Marin Catholic Saturday afternoon.

It will likely take everything the Cougars have to make it happen.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield.