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ROHNERT PARK — Some of them couldn't even look. The Miramonte players were gathering at mid-field Saturday night to hoist the trophy, to raise their arms and their voices. On the opposite side of the 50-yard line at the Rancho Cotate stadium, several Casa Grande players turned, lowered their heads and walked away.

They did it not out of disrespect. They did it because of the pain, the kind of pain that comes when a season comes to a screeching, searing halt. They couldn't watch because Miramonte took something the Gauchos wanted and they sure as heck weren't going to give it back.

"I'd rather not talk right now," said Casa running back John Porchivina. "Thank you, no."

When their door to the future gets slammed so late in the season — it wasn't over for Casa until a lost fumble with 1:58 left in the Gauchos' 14th game of the year — the players walked around looking lost, with glassy eyes, searching for answers that will not come. No, the score won't change. It will forever be 41-28 Miramonte.

"I'll remember this to the day I die," said Casa coach Trent Herzog.

Herzog will not be alone. The coaches, the players, the school's support personnel, all of them will hash and rehash the big plays, the turnovers, the 12 penalties, the two 14-point swings. They will throw out the shoulda, coulda, woulda, which happens during every film review, and they'll come to same conclusion that defensive lineman Nick Pleinnikul did.

"It was an honorable defeat," Pleinnikul said.

It was Casa answering the blows Miramonte delivered, the kind of blows that has crippled other teams, sent Miramonte to lopsided victories. There was nothing lopsided about this. The Gauchos responded and responded until there was no more time left to respond. There was just the sound of the buzzer and the emptiness that followed it.

No playing in the NorCals. No playing for state. No nothing, Zip. Zilch. Nada. What was left was shock and all that was left to play was the handling of the disbelief.

"Does this feel like a bad dream?" Casa quarterback JaJuan Lawson was asked.

"No," Lawson said. "This is much more than that. I've had bad dreams before and I've awoken up from them."

This game will stay with Lawson, just like the other Gauchos who were crying, because they competed against the best talent they've faced all season. They stared down that Miramonte quarterback, Drew Anderson, and they didn't blink. Anderson was throwing his laser darts all over the place, making a 100-yard football field almost look like the red zone, his arm was so strong, his deep balls to impressive.

Casa chased him and watched him throw those five touchdown passes and, sometimes, the smart thing, the honorable respectful thing, is just to tip your hat.

"That's a Division I quarterback," Herzog said. "If anyone is looking for a pure pocket passer who can throw it anywhere, he's the guy."

Better than anyone you faced this season?

"Since I've been at Casa," Herzog said, "Anderson is one of the two best quarterbacks I have seen. The other one was Ricky Lloyd from Concord who's now at Southern Mississippi. We blew some coverages on two of those touchdowns but the kid is a tremendous talent."

In high school especially, the toughest job of any coach is teaching defensive backs how to cover receivers. That's why — of all the skills a high school coach might want to possess — the one most coveted is having a guy with an arm like Anderson's.

It's as natural a throwing motion and as quick a pass you might ever see in high school. If there was one player who was the difference maker in this game, it was Anderson. The lead seemed to change by the minute. The chance Casa could play without a penalty was always in doubt. But Anderson was the one player that made every Casa player and coach uncomfortable. The five touchdown passes, and the length of those passes, almost read as if they occurred in a video game. Anderson completed nine passes of 20 or more yards.

"It wasn't so much the things we did wrong," Herzog said, "as we played a good football team."

So when it came to losing honorably, Casa can take some comfort in losing to Drew Anderson. Maybe not a lot. Maybe not right now. But one day they'll be able to catch their breath and see this perspective for what it is — the Gauchos didn't get beat by some guy named Moe.

One day the Casa players will find this season to be a remarkable memory. Everyone the Gauchos played came after them. Everyone wanted to make their season by beating Casa Grande. And everyone left disappointed — until Saturday night.

"I'm going to look back on this forever," Pleinnikul said. "I'll know I gave everything I had."

That's all anyone can ask of an athlete. Did you leave it all on the field?

The answer to that question appeared fairly obvious after the game.

The rest of it? It's details. The good and the bad and the wish-I-could-take-back-that-play. That happens to everybody. That happened to Casa Saturday night.

So yes, it hurt. It'll hurt for awhile, maybe a long time for some. And it should. That's what happens when you care. And Casa should feel proud of that, that the Gauchos pushed themselves all the way to when there was only 1:58 left in their 14th and last game. They wanted it that much.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.