PLEASANT HILL -- The game wasn't over Friday night and yet the comforting had already begun on the Rancho Cotate sideline.
Quarterback Michael Courchaine was holding a grieving wide receiver, Thomas Sory. Injured lineman Shae Smith was consoling running back Jalon Luque. When the game ended, linebacker Ty Brantley slammed his helmet to the ground at the Diablo Valley College stadium. A half-hour after the game ended Rancho players were still sitting on the team bench, heads down. Other players were still on the field, looking, for all the world, lost.
It made sense. Four months of practice and games had just ended. The 2012 Rancho Cotate football team had just played its last game.
Odd as this may read, that last sentence may be the most deflating, bewildering, depressing and basically incomprehensible selection of words those players could read right now.
"We're all in shock," Courchaine said of the 35-7 defeat. "I have never felt this pain after I played a sport. It feels like I lost a family member."
It did no good after the game and it will do no good for the next couple of days for Rancho to read this: Every CIF Division2 team will experience the same fate as the Cougars did Friday night — except for one. That "one" hasn't been decided yet; there are still two more games to go before a state champion is crowned. But if it makes Rancho feel any better — and it won't — Clayton Valley could be that state champion.
If Clayton Valley does, it'll be because of this running back — Joe Protheroe.
Protheroe is an optical illusion. He creates this illusory vision that he is running downhill every time he touches with the ball. He's a kid who will play at the next level. Among the few positive things the Cougars can take away from Friday's game was that Protheroe didn't run all over them as he did other teams this season. He averaged a stunning 15.8 yards a carry during the season but only averaged 4.4 Friday night, gaining just 102 yards on 23 carries. Of course, Protheroe did score four touchdowns, three on rushes and one a 93-yard kickoff return.
The Cougar players, being the proud souls they are, agreed Protheroe was a special player but they stopped short in agreeing as well that Protheroe was that special or that Clayton Valley was that good.
"We came out flat," said Rancho running back Jalon Luque. "We beat ourselves."
"They didn't beat us," Courchaine said. "We beat ourselves."
Yes, it is true, Rancho did make the job easier for Clayton Valley. The Cougars turned the ball over five times. The first turnover set the unsettling tone. On the third play of the game Courchaine threw an interception.
"The receiver was open," Courchaine said. "but I threw behind him. It was a bad throw."
So, yes, those five turnovers — three of them leading to touchdowns — were Rancho gifts to Clayton Valley. But Clayton Valley had this unmistakable and easily recognizable discipline about itself. They were well-coordinated, well-practiced to a fine 11-man movement. At no time did they ever appear to be rattled or threatened. At no time did Clayton Valley ever appear to be vulnerable.
So in unison were they, it looked like Clayton Valley's offense was moving forward before the ball was snapped. Rancho coaches brought it to the attention of the game officials who took note. But so disciplined was Clayton Valley, one also could make the case it was an optical illusion, like Protheroe running downhill. However you slice it, the stark conclusion had to be drawn — Clayton Valley had to practice long and hard to be so consistently together when the ball was snapped.