Benefield: Rancho-Newman contest a marquee matchup in Empire football

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Who: Rancho Cotate vs. Cardinal Newman

What: North Bay League-Oak football

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Cardinal Newman High School

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.


Who: Rancho Cotate vs. Cardinal Newman

What: North Bay League-Oak football

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Cardinal Newman High School

“Our offense is all brand new,” Hotaling said. “We have seen improvement. We know we haven’t played our best ball yet.”

That offense, behind junior quarterback Jared Stocker, scored 16 points in Week 1, 28 points in Week 2, 30 in Week 3 and 35 points in both weeks 4 and 5. Stocker, who has passed for nearly 1,000 yards in five games, has thrown nine touchdown passes and four interceptions — but two of those came in Week 1.

And senior Connor Barbato is the guy Stocker finds most often. Barbato, who also doubles as a defensive end, has caught 18 passes and averages 25-yard gains with every one.

“If we need to throw, he’s our go-to target. That’s no secret,” Hotaling said.

Cronin already knows. Too well, probably.

“Connor Barbato, he’s an unbelievable player,” he said.

Barbato and his “high motor” did damage every time the Cardinals lined up against him, Cronin said.

And Rasheed Rankin has been an absolute force for the Cougars. The junior running back has rushed for 625 yards — averaging 125 yards per game. He’s scored eight touchdowns.

“He has really good vision, talented,” Hotaling said. “We are excited to see what he can do.”

He won’t sneak up on the Cardinals — Rancho used Rankin 35 times against Campolindo Sept. 7.

Also no secret on the Cardinals’ side is that they have a plethora of options on offense. They have three players who have rushed for an almost equal number of yards: quarterback Jackson Pavitt, 241 yards; Shane Moran, 224 yards and Giancarlo Woods, 204 yards.

But it’s that last guy who is getting to Cronin. He wants more. And it’s on the coach, not player, to make that happen, he said.

“He’s just a fabulous athlete,” he said of Woods. “We are trying to find the right spot to use his skills.”

So fabulous that the Cardinals have used him for a little bit of everything because it seems like he can do a little bit, or a lot, of everything. He’s a jack-of-all-trades, Cronin said, and the coaching staff needs to focus on making him a master.

Also on Cronin’s to-do list Friday or in the near future is putting the ball in Moran’s hands more often. The sophomore is midpack among Cardinals runners, averaging 5.7 yards per carry on 39 attempts. He’s got two touchdowns.

“We have to get him more touches,” he said.

Pavitt likes throwing to seniors Chauncey Leberthon and Jake Woods, who have caught 21 and 17 passes, respectively. But the Cardinals become more dangerous when fellow senior Julio Angel gets in the mix more often. Angel has 11 catches for 179 yards but is capable of more, Cronin said.

“We have underused him,” Cronin said. “He’s really technical with his patterns, really an intelligent kid. We’ve relied too much on Jake and Chauncey. We need to get (Angel) more involved in the game to make us a great team.”

So will we see that Friday? Is Cronin steely-eyed enough to push beyond what has clearly worked so far this season and test his Cardinals against their longtime rivals? Or does he dance with the one who brought him?

If you believe that Cronin’s end game is the postseason, expect to hear the names Angel, Woods and Moran more frequently over the P.A. system Friday.

But also expect yet another lock-down performance from linebackers Dino Kahaulelio and Nick Wall. Both have 20 unassisted tackles on the season, and Kahaulelio has 33 unassisted to Wall’s 34.

For Hotaling’s part, he’s seen enough of those two to last a lifetime.

“Those are the problem-makers for us,” he said. “We have a huge, daunting task in front of us.

“It’s one of the most talented Newman teams that I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot of them,” he said.

And Cronin knows Friday will be a challenge. There are distractions that come with rivalry games, so there is the potential to lose focus. The game could be that tight — where the team that stays on task best will get the win.

And rivalries stir passions. Yes, it’s the league opener and it’s only halfway through the season, but for both sides, it’s a test.

“Both teams are capable of winning,” Cronin said.

“We don’t want to take a step backward,” Hotaling said. “We are happy where we are right now. We know we haven’t played our best ball yet.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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