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The first game these teams played this season settled everyone’s nerves in the aftermath of the Tubbs fire. The second game settled the North Bay League championship. The third was supposed to settle, once and for all, who fielded the best high school football team in Sonoma County in 2017.

The final score in Friday night’s North Coast Section Division 3 semifinal at Santa Rosa Junior College was Cardinal Newman 29, Rancho Cotate 28. But the result did little to convince the Cougars that they are No. 2.

Just the opposite, in fact.

“This was the toughest way to lose I could imagine,” said Gehrig Hotaling, Rancho’s first-year head coach. “If I tried, I couldn’t even imagine a worse way to lose. It’s fitting with the way this season has gone.”

Sports is all about dramatic narratives, and two completely different ones emerged from this game. For Cardinal Newman, it was another marker of resilience and poise in an autumn like no other. For Rancho Cotate, it was robbery.

Here’s the crux of the controversy. With a little over 3 minutes left in the game, Cougars quarterback Jake Simmons rolled to his left and waited for one of his guys to break open.

As the pass rush finally descended on him, Simmons uncorked a deep throw to Jaelen Ward just as the speedy receiver gained some separation. Ward caught the ball in stride, and took off for the end zone. But he didn’t take a straight line. Knowing that he was about the score the go-ahead touchdown, the senior ran parallel to the goal line in an attempt to eat away some clock. The defender chasing him fell down, so Ward danced around at the 1, facing the great expanse of the field, before finally stepping into the end zone.

Rancho Cotate had just taken a 28-22 lead with 3:06 left. But the extra point would be more than a formality, because officials had hit Ward with a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

When the game had ended, I jogged off the field alongside referee Rollin Treherne and asked him for clarification. Had Ward stuck the ball out in the direction of oncoming tacklers? Had he said something to them?

“I’m not gonna answer any more questions at this point,” Treherne said. And he repeated his demurral when I asked again.

You will not be shocked to learn that the two coaches did not view this call through similar lenses.

“The way you go into the end zone, you need to be respectful,” Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin said. “In my mind, it should have been flagged, and I would have come unglued if were his coach. There’s no reason for that.”

Many along the Rancho Cotate sidelines did indeed go nuts after seeing that scrap of yellow flying, but it wasn’t Ward they were angry at.

“Jaelen was smart enough to run out the clock,” Hotaling said. “They penalized him for being smart. They penalized him for doing the right thing.”

The 15-yard flag moved the ball back to the 18, and extended Andrew Alfaro’s point-after attempt to 35 yards. He missed; it sounded as if one of the Cardinals might have gotten a piece of the kick.

The Newman stands erupted after the misfire. They knew the script was being edited right before their eyes.

And as well as the Cougars had played to that point, despite the many ways they had answered the challenge already, you could feel a sliver of doubt creep in.

The Cardinals got the ball at their 29 with 2:59 remaining and their season on the line. Once again, they responded. After picking up a first down via a facemask penalty on Rancho Cotate, Newman quarterback Beau Barrington connected with wide receiver Kyle Carinalli on the right side of the field. The completion looked fairly harmless, but nothing is safe when Carinalli has the ball in his hands. He turned on the jets, angled to the middle of the field and sped away for a 42-yard touchdown.

“I was blown away when he caught the ball in the end,” Cardinal Newman running back Tanner Mendoza said of Carinalli. “Whenever he has the ball in his hand, he’s a threat to score.”

Rancho Cotate had 1:32 left to make amends. But it was not to be. The game ended with Ward catching a ball in Cardinal Newman territory but being tackled to the ground with zeroes on the clock.

The Cardinals led for a total of 92 seconds Friday. They were the right 92 seconds.

The loss was an absolute gut punch for the Cougars. Fifteen minutes after the final play, with joyous Cardinal Newman students and family packing the field, the Rancho coaches did their best to put this bewildering result in perspective. Some of the players were openly weeping.

The two coaches agreed on one thing: The Cougars dominated the action for much of the night.

“We looked terrible,” Cronin said of the early going. “We had a really good plan coming in, and they just froze. We couldn’t handle snaps.”

Meanwhile, Simmons was fantastic for Rancho Cotate — hard to bring down in the pocket, effective when running the ball and able to throw to almost any point on the field.

There have been a lot of great games in this rivalry, but a best-of-three series is something different. The Cardinals and Cougars got the ball rolling with a spirit-lifting exhibition game on Oct. 28, the first football action in the area in the wake of the devastating wildfires. Rancho won that one 41-28. Cardinal Newman one-upped its foe 11 days later, winning 34-27 in their official NBL game, which ultimately delivered the league title to the Cardinals.

This might not be the best team Cronin ever had, but it could wind up being his most unforgettable. Two of his assistants lost their homes in the fires. So did at least 90 Cardinal Newman students. Among them were Barrington and Carinalli, the two kids who had connected on the winning touchdown pass.

I asked Cronin if the adversity his team faced over the past six weeks had anything to do with this victory.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s part of life. When you get knocked down, you get up or you stay down.”

The Cardinals got back up Friday. The Cougars might say they had their legs cut out from under them.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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