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Prep football: Rancho Cotate captures NCS section title in hard-fought win

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LAFAYETTE — Gehrig Hotaling said before Friday night’s North Coast Section Division 3 title game that his squad is a fourth-quarter team.

The Rancho Cotate coach sure knows his football team — the Cougars scored the game’s only touchdown to start the fourth, then sealed it with a game-clinching interception on fourth down in the final minute of the contest for their first section title in nearly 20 years.

Running back Rasheed Rankin placed the Rancho Cotate offense on his back with a 22-carry, 102-yard effort and Jack Reese sealed the title win with the late interception — which he credited to studying game film — in the Cougars’ 7-0 win over Las Lomas of Walnut Creek. Rancho Cotate earned its first section title since 2002 on a cold and damp night at Acalanes High School in the East Bay city of Lafayette.

After his team took a final knee with under 40 seconds left in the game, Hotaling crouched down in tears on the sideline. A member of the 2001 Rancho team that also won the NCS title and an assistant under long-tenured previous coach Ed Conroy, the moment for Hotaling — in his third year as head coach — finally hit him.

“It’s the greatest moment in my life besides the birth of my baby this year,” Hotaling said. “It’s just surreal and unbelievable, the fight these kids have. They’re a fourth-quarter team. They’re down, but they’re never out.”

For three full quarters, the Cougars (10-3) and the previously one-loss Knights (11-2) played fairly even ball, both driving into each other’s territory but seeing drives fall short or the defense recover the ball. A missed 32-yard field goal by Knights kicker Hayden Grant before the halftime horn came the closest to putting points on the board.

But the switch flipped in the fourth quarter. After the teams exchanged three-and-outs, a Las Lomas punt placed the Cougars at the Knights’ 37-yard line. A false start sent them back another five yards. On third-and-9 from the 36, receiver Brandon Proschold caught a pass from Jared Stocker — the quarterback’s second completion of the game and his first since the first half — to set up Rancho inside the 20.

And then Rankin had the run of his life, as Hotaling called it. Rankin took a dive up the middle and carried the pile down to the 2, going over 100 yards for the night on the carry. He then scored from a yard out after a false-start penalty moved the ball up, giving the Cougars the lead with 9:14 to go.

“The play of the game when he was dragging 11 guys to the 1-yard line and you saw our guys fighting and pushing and helping — that one play epitomizes our team,” Hotaling said.

Rankin couldn’t recall a harder run in his life. He credited the offensive line for the momentum.

“The O-line came out of nowhere and started pushing me,” he said. “I just kept my feet moving.”

But it wasn’t over. Even as Rancho pinned the Knights at their own 9-yard line following a mishandled kickoff return, Las Lomas didn’t quit. The Knights took the ball 79 yards in a little more than 9 minutes to set-up the penultimate 4th-and-3 at the Rancho 12.

Knights backup quarterback Sammy Von Felden (in for starter Everett Johnson, who suffered a leg injury in the third quarter) passed to the right and was intercepted by a waiting Reese.

“They ran a play that we had prepared for all week with their best player (Oregon State commit Isaiah Newell) running a wheel route from the running back position,” Hotaling said. “We knew they were going to be running that play at some point. They waited until the last second and we were there.”

Newell just so happened to be in the area of the Cougars’ best receiver.

“We notice when they line up in that set, there’s a 50% chance they’re going to run that,” Reese said. “And they hadn’t run it all game. We waited for it all game. We finally read it and got a chance to pick it off.”

Rancho lost in the Division 2 semifinals last year to Marin Catholic 7-2. Current Cougars running backs and special teams coach Danny Smith was also on the 2002 title-winning team.

Rancho’s season isn’t over yet. On Sunday, the Cougars will learn where and when they’ll play in the state NorCal playoffs.

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