Rancho Cotate's Chris Taylor-Yamanoha roars quietly for Cougars

Common sense told Ed Conroy it was a bad idea. His eyes told him something else.

This was three years ago, Conroy’s 25th season as head coach of the Rancho Cotate football team, and he was debating a move he had never made before. He was thinking of starting a freshman on varsity - on both sides of the ball, no less.

Conroy knew it would be a lot to ask of 15-year-old Chris Taylor-Yamanoha. He knew some parents of more experienced players would be unhappy about such a leap up the depth chart, too.

“But athletically, he was one of the best players we had when he was a freshman,” Conroy said after practice Tuesday as the Cougars prepared for Friday’s home game against Alhambra. “He could dunk a friggin’ basketball. He could run, jump, great instincts. And a tenacious competitor.”

Conroy started Taylor-Yamanoha at wide receiver and cornerback and looked like a genius when the freshman earned All-North Bay League first-team honors. Taylor-Yamanoha has been a Rancho Cotate fixture ever since.

As the 2015 season gets underway, the Empire Player of the Year competition is wide open, with much depending on the fortunes of the various teams. But there is no debating the area’s most gifted prospect.

After the end of his junior season, Taylor-Yamanoha was hounded by college recruiters. Eighteen schools offered scholarships, including Cal, Washington State and Boise State, among others. Taylor-Yamanoha committed to the University of Louisville. Even then, the University of Washington made a strong pitch to lure him away. As of now, the senior is sticking with Louisville.

It’s not the stretch it appears to be at first glance. Taylor-Yamanoha was born in Louisville and lived there until he was 6. He still has a web of family in Kentucky, including grandparents, aunts and uncles.

His mother, who graduated from Louisville when she went by the name Rachael Livingston, moved the family to California when Taylor-Yamanoha was 6. They settled in Novato, and when the boy was in seventh grade they moved to Rohnert Park.

By then, Rachael had married Rudy Yamanoha. Both of them work in law enforcement for Marin County, Rudy as a sheriff’s department lieutenant, Rachael Yamanoha as a victim/witness advocate in the district attorney’s office.

Rudy Yamanoha is a long-time youth football coach in Rohnert Park, and an assistant under Conroy at the high school. It didn’t take him long to see that his stepson had a big advantage over other kids in terms of size and athletic ability, though Taylor-Yamanoha says it took him a couple years of youth ball to assert himself.

By the time he got to Rancho Cotate, he was ready to take off.

Taylor-Yamanoha is 6-foot-2 and about 185 pounds, but he hasn’t coasted on his size and speed. His stepfather helped set him up with summer skills programs, especially Nathan Kenion Training’s 7-on-7 passing camps in the East Bay. Every summer Taylor-Yamanoha would test himself against some of the best players in the North Coast Section. Every fall he would return to Rancho a little smarter, a little more polished.

By now, Taylor-Yamanoha has become a dual threat without comparison in Sonoma County.

“He’s probably the best receiver I’ve ever had here, and we’ve had some good ones,” Conroy said. “And he might be the best technical DB I’ve ever had as a corner.”

On offense, Taylor-Yamanoha had 70 catches for 902 yards and 15 touchdowns last year despite seeing heavy doses of double coverage. He can race past the coverage if it doesn’t overplay the deep ball, and no 50/50 ball is truly 50/50 with Taylor-Yamanoha, because he can outjump almost any defender.

It’s a skill set well known to his Rancho Cotate quarterback, Gunner Mefferd, who played two seasons of Pop Warner with Taylor-Yamanoha before they got to high school, and who teamed with his top receiver as a junior last year.

“We just know each other so well,” Taylor-Yamanoha said. “We can just look at each other and know what we’re running, what hot routes to do. We just work together great.”

Conroy and Kenion, who runs the 7-on-7 camps, both praise Taylor-Yamanoha’s disciplined route-running. Conroy says that while the receiver used to get knocked around a lot when he was younger, a dedicated weightlifting program put an end to that. Taylor-Yamanoha now cleans 275 pounds.

Kenion thinks the kid with the hyphen is slightly more natural on offense. But Taylor-Yamanoha is just as highly touted as a cornerback. In fact, Louisville has hinted that it may try him on that side of the ball first.

“I love defense just as much,” Taylor-Yamanoha said. “It’s fun. Almost every play you’re competing.”

Taylor-Yamanoha had four interceptions last year, an impressive total when you consider how infrequently opponents throw at him. More important, he tends to shadow the opponent’s best receiver all over field, and he does it so competently that the Cougars shade the rest of the defense away from him. So Taylor-Yamanoha’s presence frees up teammates like Danny Shelton, Rancho Cotate’s senior safety, to make plays without having to worry much about one side of the coverage.

“I think Chris is a better off-man corner, but he’s definitely comfortable in zone as well,” Kenion said. “He tracks the ball well, and that comes back to him being a receiver. And like most tall corners, whatever quick-twitch muscle he might lack he’s able to make up for with his speed.”

Versatile? Taylor-Yamanoha was Rancho’s third-string quarterback last year. He has also returned kicks. He hasn’t lined up in the backfield much, but he jumped in to play running back in a recent practice drill and juked a would-be tackler with a quick cut in the hole that was as smooth as a Stephen Curry crossover dribble.

“Put him at RB!” an assistant coach yelled, as teammates “ooohed” at the play.

Taylor-Yamanoha does everything with a fluid grace that makes it look like he’s working half as hard as everyone else, even when he’s pacing the after-practice sprints. It matches his laid-back demeanor. Taylor-Yamanoha is soft-spoken and quick to smile. His stepfather calls him “very humble.”

“I have yet to see him, out of all the years we’ve played, to get excited making a touchdown - and he’s made a lot of touchdowns,” Yamanoha said. “He’ll make a touchdown and just hand the ball to the ref and jog off the field. I have yet to see him jump up and down, show some type of excitement that he scored a touchdown. But that’s his personality. He’s not the loud one.”

Yamanoha says his stepson has never been a vocal leader, and that’s fine. He works hard and plays with a quiet intensity.

“He has an internal flame. He has an internal excitement,” Yamanoha said.

As Conroy notes, “You don’t bring it out. He brings it out in himself. Sometimes when you get on him, instead of becoming fiery he kind of gets quiet and gets introverted. He just doesn’t express it outwardly until it’s on the field.”

The recruiting process can be an exercise in ego inflation for a teenager, but it failed to bring out Taylor-Yamanoha’s swagger.

“Quiet as a church mouse. Didn’t say a word,” Conroy said. “You’d have to pry it out of him - ‘How’s it going?’ He wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, Coach, this school called today.’ And of course coaches came to see him. He was almost like shy and embarrassed that they’re here talking to him.”

Even Taylor-Yamanoha’s tattoos are understated: his mother’s favorite bible verse (Jeremiah 29:11) on his left arm, his grandmother’s favorite (Matthew 6:33) on his chest.

Taylor-Yamanoha says he didn’t take school seriously as a freshman and got poor grades. But he has buckled down since then. In fact, after completing summer-school courses, he is in position to graduate in December if he wants to get a head start on his college workouts.

That’s a decision for later. For now, Taylor-Yamanoha is focused on his final high school season, ready to quietly, smoothly lead Rancho Cotate in its pursuit of a section championship - a quest that begins Friday against Alhambra.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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