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Prep football: Rancho Cotate rushes into title game

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Rancho Cotate High School senior running back Rasheed Rankin ran for 177 yards and four touchdowns Saturday night in the Cougars’ 40-28 win over Benicia High School in the North Coast Section Division 3 semifinals in Rohnert Park.

After a slow 3-3 start to the season, the Cougars (9-3) have come on strong as of late, winning their last five games behind feature running back Rankin, who ran for 908 yards and 14 touchdowns in the regular season.

“At the beginning of the year we were a lot of individuals and over time we realized that wasn’t the path to go down, and now we’re truly a team and that’s a thing of beauty,” Rancho head coach Gehrig Hotaling said.

The Panthers (10-2) entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and came into Saturday on an eight-game win streak after beating El Cerrito 34-14 in the first round of the bracket.

Rancho broke its five-year losing streak in the semifinals by holding on to an early lead Saturday night through a highly contested game that was still close late into fourth quarter.

“It feels unbelievable. The foundation has been laid, and this was just the team to do it. I want to give credit to all the previous five Rancho teams that didn’t break through because the knowledge has been passed down from players and coaches on what it really takes to move on to that title game,” Hotaling said about ending the losing streak.

Rancho got Rankin and the run game going early in the win, ripping off some big chunks on their way to a 13-yard touchdown by the senior back on a long drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock.

Benicia looked to also get its run-heavy offense rolling but stalled as the Cougars’ Tai Peleti intercepted the ball.

Rancho turned the turnover into some quick points on a 2-yard touchdown run from Rankin to go up 14-0.

A 55-yard kick return by the Panthers’ Kameron Lane took them into enemy territory and Lane finished off the short drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.

Midway through the second quarter, the Cougars’ Peleti intercepted the ball again and returned it to the opponent’s red zone, where quarterback Jared Stocker threw an 8-yard touchdown to Demitri Johnson.

With less than 10 seconds left in the half, the Panthers threw up a prayer of a pass and connected with Dairyus McNorton for an 81-yard touchdown reception to reduce the Cougars’ lead to 21-14 at the half.

On Rancho’s first drive of the third quarter, a 40-yard pass to Reese put the Cougars’ offense at midfield, who finished the drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass, also to Reese.

At the end of the third quarter, another big kick return from the Panthers gave them good field position and again they took advantage with a 44-yard touchdown run by Maurian Burrell.

Rancho led 27-20 heading into the fourth.

The Cougars continued to turn to their running game and at the start of the fourth ripped off another successful drive ending in a 15-yard rushing touchdown by Rankin.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers were able to bring it within one score with a 62-yard touchdown pass to Jaxson Bates, reducing Rancho’s lead to 34-28.

But the Cougars ripped off another long scoring drive, and Rankin’s fourth TD, on a 37-yard run.

With just over two minutes left in the game the deficit was too much for the Panthers to overcome and Rancho walked away with a 40-28 victory.

The Cougars will face top-seeded Las Lomas High School in the finals at 7 p.m. Friday at Acalanes High in Lafayette.

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