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The game wasn’t five minutes old and a cell phone was being shoved in Paul Cronin’s face. On the line? A North Coast Section official.

Cardinal Newman’s football coach didn’t take the call, but he gave an assistant coach explicit instructions — tell them we want the No. 1 seed.

Approximately 10 hours after the whistle blew on Cardinal Newman’s thrilling 34-27 win over previously unbeaten Rancho Cotate, a selection committee tasked with seeding Div. 3 football teams for the section playoffs has to wrap their heads around what happened on Santa Rosa Junior College’s football field Saturday night and what it means for the postseason.

For Cronin, it’s simple. Newman, now 7-2 overall and 5-0 as the North Bay League champioons, deserves the No. 1 seed.

“Essentially, I think we are a 1 or 2,” he said. “If you look at the strength of schedule and our power ranking, which I think they should go by, I think we are a 1 or 2.”

Newman’s only losses this season were to St. Mary’s of Stockton — a 48-34 defeat — and the matchup with Rancho two weeks ago, when they fell 41-28 in the first contest for either team since the deadly wildfires that burned a significant portion of the Newman campus and torched the homes of approximately 90 Cardinal Newman students.

Rancho head coach Gehrig Hotaling conceded that the loss for his team will sink them in the seedings.

“We’ll drop down,” he said. “The four or five seed? Our division is so stacked that one loss” affects us.

And Hotaling wanted that pennant that the Newman players were posing with at center field.

“That’s the most disappointing thing,” he said. “It’s tough to beat a good team twice.”

And unfortunately for Rancho, Newman was a better team Saturday night than they were two weeks ago in a game that counted toward overall records but did not count in league play. When Rancho hosted Newman on Oct. 23, it was the first time either had taken the field for a game in weeks.

Senior quarterback Beau Barrington, whose family lost their home in the fire, was a different guy Saturday night.

Saturday night’s Barrington ran for 137 yards on 20 carries and passed for 114 yards on 13 of 18 attempts. He had a couple of bobbled balls and two interceptions, but nobody’s perfect.

“Beau played like a winner tonight,” Cronin said. “Beau played like the best quarterback in the Redwood Empire tonight. He was a winner. He made great plays. And he didn’t have a ton of help — we had dropped balls, we had fumbles. We could have won that game by a lot more.”

Barrington said this game just felt different.

“This week me and Cronin had a real heart-to-heart about the whole fire thing,” Barrington said.

The result?

“I just played a lot more aggressively,” he said. “I just played with a lot more passion.”

But the tight final score — it was tied after three quarters — will give the selection committee something to chew on Sunday morning. The committee is scheduled to meet Sunday morning to seed teams in divisions 1-5. The brackets should be released by Sunday afternoon.

The two longstanding rivals came into the game 4-0 in North Bay League, with no other team even close. This was the game circled on everyone’s calendar from the moment it was scheduled. It had all the elements: powerhouse foes both with undefeated records, both squads fighting for a higher seed in the same North Coast Section division — and the element that is hard to quantify, but just might be the most powerful piece of the equation: bragging rights and pride.

After every blow struck, the other side countered with something equal.

Newman struck first. Senior running back Tanner Mendoza introduced himself to those in the crowded stands by pounding the ball in from four yards out to put the Cardinals up 7-0 in the first quarter. It was the first of many notable moments for the running back celebrating senior night.

Early in the second, Rancho defensive end James Parker snagged a Barrington pass from just beyond the line of scrimmage in a play of breathtaking athleticism. Four plays later, Rancho’s senior quarterback Jake Simmons went from shotgun to under center and plunged into the end zone after a quick handoff. Tie game.

When Newman got the ball back, a Barrington pass went through the arms of senior wide receiver Nikko Kitchen and was snagged by Rancho’s Anthony Scardina.

Two plays later, Simmons connected with senior wide receiver Cyrus Hernandez, who outsprinted the Cardinals to the end zone in a 75-yard play. It was 14-7 Rancho with seven minutes to play in the half.

After a Newman punt, Rancho’s offense suddenly sputtered. Two sacks of Simmons, the second resulting in a fumble that Simmons recovered, put the Cougars in trouble. At third down and 19, Simmons scampered straight up the middle and slid into a tackler. A flag for an illegal hit put the Cougars at the 49-yard line. It was the opening Simmons needed; he connected with Logan Reese on the next play and Reese simply outflew every guy on the field.

A penalty put the point-after attempt five yards deeper than usual and it was no good — Rancho 20, Newman 14.

But Newman’s Mendoza kept the Cardinals in it. With a minute to play in the half, Mendoza took a handoff and sprinted straight up the middle and didn’t stop until he was in the end zone 55 yards later. The point after was blocked and it was tied at 20.

It stayed tied after the defensive units on both teams made exceptional stands.

After Rancho had to punt following two dropped balls in the fourth, the Mendoza show was on again. The running back got the Cardinals to the 10-yard line and then it was Barrington who ran one in for six.

Simmons was picked off in the next series, but the Cougar defense got him the ball back with time to do damage — and he did. Simmons ran 40 yards to tie the game at 27 with four minutes to play.

Mendoza then set up the Cardinals with excellent field position after he ran the kickoff back to the 31-yard line. A steady march brought Newman to the one-yard line on third down.

Barrington slugged it in for the win and the Cardinal defense snuffed out any last gasp the Cougars had on the final series.

On paper, Barrington’s numbers don’t look as good as when Newman played Rancho two weeks ago. But Barrington, along with Mendoza, put the Cardinals on their backs in a way that didn’t happen Oct. 23.

Maybe it was because the league pennant was on the line Saturday. Or maybe it was to impress the section selection committee. Or maybe the Cardinals found their groove at just the right moment in a season of a lot of wrong moments.

Either way, it’s interesting how much things can change in two weeks.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at Kerry.benefield @pressemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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