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NCS football playoffs: Defense wins it for Rancho

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Defense won a hard-fought, seesaw North Coast Section Division 3 quarterfinal game for Rancho Cotate High School on Friday night.

The Cougars came away 38-33 winners over North Bay League-Oak Division rivals Windsor, but only with help from two defensive touchdowns in the second half.

Rancho, seeded No. 2, struggled with Windsor’s passing game in the first two quarters, allowing four touchdowns in the air to trail 26-17 at the half to the No. 7-seeded Jaguars.

But the Cougars regained their defensive footing late in the game, with a fumble recovery and an interception runback, both for touchdowns.

Gino Mencarini, a sophomore defensive end, grabbed up a fumble after Raymond Nixon sacked Windsor quarterback Billy Boyle midway through the third quarter.

Mencarini ran 48 yards for the score to pull his Cougars to within two points, 26-24.

After the teams traded scores, Rancho trailed 33-31 going into the fourth quarter.

As Windsor began a drive from its 20, Rancho’s Mihalis Santorineos snatched a Boyle pass at the Windsor 25 and cut to the sideline to reach the end zone and put his team up for good, 38-33.

Mencarini said he thought about just diving on the loose ball, but decided against it.

“It was such an open field, it was just too good to be true and I ran it in,” he said.

Santorineos credited solid blocking that allowed him to run back his interception.

“It was a really tight game and we need a big play,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. I saw it develop and it was just a huge momentum changer for us.”

The first two or three quarters reminded Rancho coach Gehrig Hotaling of the only other time the teams had met this year — in mid-October, when Rancho ultimately won 33-20, but only after another second-half comeback.

Same story, even worse, he said.

“We are not perfect but we never quit and we never give up,” he said. “We came back from deficits a couple deficits this year.”

He said his defense was “unrecognizable” in the first half. Some players were rusty, some were filling in for injured others.

And Windsor’s passing game was on point.

“They have a really good group of receivers,” he said.

The Jaguar took an early lead after Rancho fumbled in the first quarter and Boyle connected with Nico Contreras for the first of two TDs between them.

Rancho settled for a field goal on its next drive, then went down 13-3 when Boyle hit Contreras again on a 70-yard pass.

Contreras caught the ball at Rancho’s 40, lost his defender, then went one-on-one with Windsor’s last defensive player and tossed him to the ground at the 10 before scampering in to put his team up by 10.

The Cougars’ Jayden Herrera brought his team to 13-10 with a nine-yard touchdown in the second period.

Windsor’s touchdowns almost all came on long-yard flashy plays.

With 4:40 left in the first half, backup quarterback Chase Vehmeyer, a sophomore, filled in after Boyle took a hard shot.

Two Windsor penalties put the Jags at second-and-15 at their own five-yard line — with a sophomore backup under center.

But Vehmeyer rose to the occasion, throwing a bomb to wide receiver EZ Woodard, who caught it at about the 45-yard line and sped in for the score and a 20-17 Windsor lead.

Windsor coach Brad Stibi said his team played with the effort and courage he asked them to.

“It just came down to the mistakes,” he said. “Unfortunately, the mistakes happened too late in the game for us to recover. We needed to stay on the path we were on in the first, second and third quarters.”

Even with the loss, he said, his team made progress.

“The kids gained something positive out of this,” he said. “We played better than last time and played hard the whole game.”

Rancho, 8-3, moves on to play No. 3 Benicia next week in Rohnert Park. Benicia defeated No. 6 El Cerrito Friday, 34-14.

Windsor ends its season 7-4.

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