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ROHNERT PARK — Sixteen games.

When I asked first-year Rancho Cotate High football coach Gehrig Hotaling about his goals for the season, what with the Cougars racing to a 4-0 start including an impressive win against defending Div. 4-AA CIF state champion Campolindo, he said simply: To play 16 games.

There is no hiding behind that number. To play 16 games means a trip to the state championship game.

“If we are truly maximizing our potential, we could play 16 games this year. But we’ll never get to that sixteenth game if we look ahead and play for the next game instead of living in the moment,” he said.

The moment looks pretty good for Rancho.

The Cougars are currently 4-0, including a 1-0 start in the North Bay League. They have put up 206 points against their foes, while allowing just 31. Their defense has blanked two teams.

Another fun fact? The Cougars have not punted once all season.

But the real game of note, the game that perhaps serves as a bellwether for the season, is the one in which the Cougars allowed an uncharacteristic 28 points.

On Sept. 15, Rancho traveled to Moraga to take on Campolindo. The Campolindo Cougars are three-time defending Div. 3 North Coast Section champions. A drought for them was in 2013 — when they lost in the semis — and in 2012, when they lost in the quarters. In 2011, they won the whole thing.

But Rancho would not be cowed. They came away with a 33-28 win.

The Cougars describe that win as a “statement game.”

“Not a lot of people had us winning that game,” senior quarterback Jake Simmons said. “(It) let everybody know that we are for real this year, let them know that we aren’t afraid of any competition and won’t back down to any competition at all.”

Better still, according to Hotaling, was how Rancho won.

“We turned the ball over four times that game and still were able to win,” he said. “Just that by itself shows how much talent we have and how much this team is firing on all cylinders. To be able to survive a four-turnover game on the road against an opponent like that?”

Twice Campolindo had the ball on the one-yard line in the fourth quarter and twice the Rancho defense turned them back.

“That’s a big step for Rancho,” said junior linebacker Elias Rantissi, “that we have the capability to beat a team of that caliber and that standard.”

Junior tight end Connor Barbato said talk of 16 games started the moment the whistle blew last Nov. 26, after Bishop O’Dowd had dispatched the Cougars 37-34 in the NCS Div. 3 semifinal game.

“Last year it was our goal and we came up short,” Barbato said. “That was our motivation — in the weight room, conditioning, when we felt like we couldn’t go any more, we use it.”

The Cougars need not rely solely on motivation. They have weapons as well. And they start with Simmons.

The second-year starter has thrown for 1,412 yards on the season, including 16 touchdowns. Against Campolindo, he threw for 351 yards and three TDs. Even Simmons’ uncharacteristic three picks that night don’t take the shine off the quarterback for Hotaling.

“Two of those interceptions were unbelievable plays by the Campolindo defense,” he said. “You just tip your hat to the opposing team.”

Hotaling said no one works harder than Simmons. Example: At the close of last season Hotaling, then the Cougars’ offensive coordinator, asked Simmons to work on his completion rate, which was 58 percent.

Simmons went to work. His completion rate through four games this season? Seventy-nine percent.

“He’s the hardest worker,” Hotaling said. “After practice when everybody leaves, he runs by himself. He has such a thirst for knowledge in his film study, preparedness.”

And it doesn’t hurt that Simmons has been tossing balls to his favorite receivers since grade school. The Cougars’ top receiver, senior Jaelen Ward, describes Simmons as his best friend since elementary school. Ward has hauled in 28 passes for 548 yards in four games, including five touchdowns.

“Most of the time I know it’s where it needs to be, right when I turn my head,” Ward said of Simmons’ throws. “It’s nothing really special; we’ve been doing it a long time.”

Simmons begs to differ that it isn’t anything special.

“I’ve been throwing the rock with them mostly my whole life, especially Jaelen and Logan (Reese),” he said. “That’s why we have that chemistry that I don’t think most teams in this league can share.”

Despite a loaded roster and a gangbusters start, the Cougars no doubt have their work cut out for them. Look no further than their North Bay League rival, Cardinal Newman, a team which also maybe be eyeing a deep playoff run.

The Cardinals are 3-1, with their only loss coming against St. Mary’s of Stockton, a perennial powerhouse that lost in overtime in the Div. 1-AA state championship game last year.

Happily for football fans, this showdown comes at the most dramatic time — the final game of the league season on Nov. 4.

But neither Rancho nor Newman will have an easy go of it. NCS Div. 3 is loaded. Six teams are undefeated and seven have just one loss.

Regardless, Hotaling is thinking big, as are his players. And they make no bones about it.

“The talent on this team is incredible,” Hotaling said. “A team like this doesn’t come around that often.”

Sixteen games. Four down, 12 to go.

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

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