|Heartbreaking end to great season
Miscues prove costly in 35-7 loss to Eagles in NCS final
As time passes, Rancho Cotate High’s football players will look back on their 12-1 season with tremendous pride, as well they should.
After all, the Cougars won 12 of 13 football games, dominated the North Bay League and have been the toast of the town. Still, there was no consoling them following their 35-7 loss at the hands of Clayton Valley in the North Coast Section Div. II championship game at Diablo Valley College on Nov. 30.
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the broken-hearted Cougars let the tears flow, and many of their supporters joined them. They were mourning not only the loss and a missed opportunity to advance to the Northern California regional bowl game against Oakdale. The realization this group of players will never play together again hit hard.
“Our whole friendship will be closer than it ever has after this,” quarterback Michael Courchaine said. “This team is a family. We all hang out together, we do everything together. We had a helluva season. We went 12-1, most teams can’t do that. I’ll never forget this season. I’m proud of this season and my teammates.” The Cougars also will lament how they really never gave themselves a chance to win as they turned the ball over five times, including three in the first half which all led to Clayton Valley touchdowns. Those mistakes coupled with the effective running of Eagles back Joe Protheroe proved insurmountable for Rancho Cotate.
Clayton Valley, 12-1, advances to the Northern California regional bowl game against Oakdale.
The Cougars did all the things head coach Ed Conroy said they could ill afford to do in order to stay competitive with the Eagles. Their first possession of the game was a harbinger as the Eagles' Curtis Grant stepped in front of a Courchaine pass intended for Thomas Sory and returned it 28 yards to the Cougars' 14. Two plays later, Protheroe was in the end zone from 9 yards out. Each of Rancho Cotate's turnovers in the first half was converted into points by the Eagles.
"That's the way the breaks went this game," Conroy said. "Sometimes you make those plays, and sometimes you don't. It's heartbreaking, especially for the seniors. I think our kids the best they could. I can live with that. I think the kids will remember in time they got to the championship game. But when they look at the film, I think they'll be disappointed we didn't do things as well as we could have."
Throughout the entire first half, the Cougars were unable to establish any sort of rhythm on offense because of their mistakes but also because the Eagles controlled the ball with Protheroe's running. The standout runner had 108 of his 116 yards rushing in the first half.
"He' (Protheroe) is a great running back," Conroy said. "That's why he's got almost 3,000 yards rushing this year. That scheme they run (the double-wing offense) is confusing. They do a good job of blocking for him, and they were able to get more guys to the point of attack."
Protheroe's effort overshadowed a 138-yard rushing performance by Cougars' senior Jalon Luque, who surpassed the 2,000-yard rushing mark this season. A 2,000-yard season was little consolation to an emotional Luque following the game.
"We hurt ourselves, and we came out flat in a championship game, which shouldn't happen," said Luque, who has drawn interest from Black Hills University in South Dakota. "I thought we had a chance. It was extremely frustrating. I couldn't get a break each time I had the ball."
The stat sheet will read three first-half turnovers for the Cougars, but they also lost the ball on downs with a chance to tie the game at 7-7 in the first quarter. They had fourth-and-inches at the 30. Courchaine pitched the ball to Luque on an option, but the runner was unable to secure the ball and fumbled. He managed to recover the ball, but he was unable to get to the first-down mark.
Clayton Valley cashed in when Protheroe scored on a touchdown run up the middle, this time from 11 yards out to cap a 16-play, 70-yard drive. Protheroe dominated as he carried the ball for all but one play in the drive. The kick for the extra point sailed wide left, leaving the Eagles with a 13-0 lead with 5:23 remaining in the second quarter.
Disaster struck on the Cougars' next possession as the snap to Courchaine, who was in shotgun formation, sailed over his head and the ball was recovered at the Cougars' 2 by the Eagles. On the next play, Eagles quarterback Michael Protheroe barreled into the end zone. The Eagles converted the two-point attempt to up the lead to 21-0 with 4:36 left in the half.
Late in the second quarter, Garrett Nelson intercepted a deep pass by Courchaine and returned it 45 yards to the Cougars' 16. After a penalty moved the ball back five yards, Michael Protheroe found a wide-open Grant for a 21-yard scoring pass. The point-after gave the Eagles a 28-0 lead with 17 seconds remaining in the half.
The start of the second half was just as frustrating for the Cougars as the first, as Joe Protheroe returned the kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. The extra-point kick increased Clayton Valley's lead to 35-0.
The Cougars finally got on the scoreboard with 5:29 remaining in the third when Tanoa Peleti plowed into the end zone from 2 yards out, capping a 13-play, 80 yard drive. The Cougars finally were able to establish their rushing attack, as all but 11 of the yards came via the ground.