Benefield: Football fights back as Rancho stays unbeaten

Rancho Cotate's Logan Reese (17) runs against Cardinal Newman in the 1st half at Rancho Cotate High School, in Rohnert Park, on Monday, October 23, 2017. (Photo by Darryl Bush / For The Press Democrat)


It was a game that wasn’t supposed to happen, at least not yet.

Cardinal Newman wasn’t supposed to come south to the home of the Rancho Cotate Cougars, not in October — on a Monday night — no less. This matchup of the two premier North Bay League football squads wasn’t supposed to happen until Nov. 4.

But there we were, in Cougar Stadium, on a school night.

It was a game that was borne of tragedy but it was a game that gave us fun, gave us hope, gave us something else to think about in the first time in a long time.

In the end, the hosts won — rather handily in fact. Rancho Cotate beat visiting Cardinal Newman 41-28 in a game that felt close for a quarter but not so much after that.

It was a game with big numbers: Rancho quarterback extraordinaire Jake Simmons tossed for 239 yards and two touchdowns on 16 for 28 completions. Logan Reese was a wizard, racking up 113 receiving yards on seven catches. He also had a touchdown.

The unsung hero of the night though was senior Connor Barbato. It seems like every big play big No. 88 was in the mix. On defense he had five batted balls — two of those were on fourth down when Cardinal Newman was going for it.

It was a great showing by the Cougars and after any other night, we’d be talking football in these pages.

But it wasn’t just a football game. How could it be? This was the first time many of us have been together to celebrate something, to keep our eyes glued to something that wasn’t a television screen showing us scenes of devastation.

It’s been just two weeks since the wildfires forever changed the landscape in Sonoma County. Twenty-three people have died in this county alone and an estimated 6,800 buildings have been razed. The Tubbs fire is the most destructive wildfire in California history.

Approximately 90 of Cardinal Newman’s 620 students lost homes in the blaze. All of Cardinal Newman’s 620 students lost a massive piece of their school. Nineteen classrooms, the library, main office, counseling office are all gone. So, too, are the baseball/soccer field, the dugout and stands.

So for Newman to suit up and show up was something in itself.

“We are so excited our kids got to play a game,” said Cardinal Newman head coach Paul Cronin. “The tragedy is a horrible thing but our kids signed up to play.”

The football team has been practicing since Monday — in Forestville. El Molino High graciously offered the Cardinals the use of their facilities, so Newman headed west to cleaner air and a little bit of routine in what has been an emotionally upending time.

If the Cardinals were emotionally drained heading out onto the field, who could blame them. I didn’t hear that from them, but these two weeks have been a lot to bear. And some have borne more than others.

Cardinal Newman’s quarterback Beau Barrington lost his home. So did wide receiver Kyle Carinalli, you know, No. 5. Except that on Monday night Carinalli was wearing No. 23 because his jersey was burned up in the blaze.

This wasn’t a normal game. It didn’t count toward that North Bay League title chase. That will surely be decided when these two teams meet again Nov. 4.

This was a game both juggernauts wanted because other area teams were too depleted by the ravages of the fire to compete. They wanted to play.

Cardinal Newman may have been more ravaged than any high school in the area, but they are a football school. Of course they started practice this week. Of course they took the game with Rancho.

It’s their kiss off to the fire. It’s their way back to normal.

A coach who has nothing to do with Cardinal Newman football sent me a text that said her new favorite emoji combo is a middle finger followed by flames. Yeah, mine too.

But the disaster has brought out the good in us too.

People are bouncing — or fighting — back. Cardinal Newman will restart classes today. Because they are not allowed on their campus, they’ve set up satellite campuses for all four classes in four different cities. That’s resilience.

The game Monday night was a good one. It was a matchup of the two best teams fans are going to see around these parts.

Happily, we’ll get round two of this rivalry on Nov. 4. And we could all use some happy news these days.

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