There are games on the schedule that you circle. And there are games that you circle twice.
For football fans around Sonoma County, Friday is circled twice.
Undefeated Rancho Cotate, at 5-0, travels north to play at Cardinal Newman, meeting the 4-1 Cardinals at 7 p.m. in the first game of the newly configured North Bay League-Oak Division. This rivalry isn’t as old as some others in these parts, but in recent years it’s about as good as it gets.
Last year they played each other an unbelievable three times. That was, in part, because it was an unbelievable year. In a season disrupted by the devastating wildfires, after a hiatus in play, these two teams were the first to raise their hands to play football again — lining up on a Monday night to help keep the community’s eyes facing forward.
Rancho won that one.
Then they played again, this time to determine which school would hoist the North Bay League banner. Newman won that one.
And then, remarkably, they played yet again, this time in the North Coast Section Division 3 semifinal game that had everything a good drama does: heartbreak, celebration, thrills and controversy.
Newman won that one, too.
And it probably is no surprise that for one coach, it’s in the past, and for the other, that night still stings.
“It was a real bitter ending to the season last year,” Rancho Cotate coach Gehrig Hotaling said of the loss.
It’s a long story, but in a nut: In the waning minutes of the game, a Rancho receiver — just as he was scoring the go-ahead touchdown — was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and assessed a 15-yard penalty on the extra point attempt. It missed. Cardinal Newman went on to score on its final possession.
Final: Cardinal Newman 29, Rancho Cotate 28.
That season, one in which Rancho Cotate fielded one of the strongest teams it has had in recent memory, still burns a little.
“Last year we had pretty lofty goals and it didn’t work out,” Hotaling said. “A lot of it is pretty painful, considering the fires and how it ended with controversy.”
The positive for the Cougars is that kind of sting can light a fire under a team.
For Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin, though, he’s had enough fire, thanks. And he’s OK with keeping his teams’ eyes focused forward. This year’s team is building a new identity apart from last year’s squad, which was widely celebrated for its resilience after the school and community lost so much in the blazes.
It was easy for that team to find a common bond. This team has worked to forge its own identity, he said.
“As you get further into the year, the more it separates the team from last year,” he said. “They create their own identity.”
So Friday is a new deal, but there is some history here.
By Hotaling’s count, Rancho has not beaten Cardinal Newman on the Cardinals’ home field since 2002. To that end, he’s had his team practicing on natural grass for two weeks.
Hotaling acknowledges the task at hand, but he likes the tools he has at his disposal. And the Cougars have proven themselves early, with five straight non-league wins against solid programs, including a 35-21 victory Sept. 7 against Campolindo. They have also beaten Sacramento, Vanden, El Cerrito and Pleasant Valley.
IF YOU GO
Who: Rancho Cotate vs. Cardinal Newman
What: North Bay League-Oak football
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Cardinal Newman High School