With a chance to ice the game, Live Oak High quarterback Xavier Catano went up to Acorns coach Mike Gemo and said, “Just give me the ball, coach. I’m going to get it.”
Catano did just that, running for a 10-yard gain to put the finishing touches on a 14-13 win over host Christopher High on Sept. 3.
“I’ve got to trust the kids when they feel it, and they felt it,” Gemo said. “I trusted them and he got it.”
Live Oak (2-0) was facing a fourth-and-three from the Christopher 40-yard line with a one-point lead and 42.7 seconds to go, so a punt would’ve been the safe play. However, even on a punt things could go awry so the percentages for the Acorns to gain three yards on a run play—something they did all game—was pretty good.
Ultimately, the teams were separated by an extra point, which Christopher (1-1) missed after its second touchdown. In the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the teams’ annual series was determined by one- and two-points, respectively. They’ve played every single year since CHS started a program in the 2010 season.
“It hurts to lose by one point against a rival, but it’s also cool to be a part of a fun game like that,” Cougars coach Darren Yafai said. “I told our guys I was proud of them for battling to the very end against a good team. I think they’ll probably be league champs in their (Blossom Valley League) Mount Hamilton Division.”
Christopher started its final possession at its own 35 with 2 minutes, 59 seconds remaining. Spencer Gorgulho completed passes of seven and five yards before three straight incompletions brought the Cougars to a fourth-and-10 from the Live Oak 47-yard line.
With pressure coming from the middle, Gorgulho scrambled to his left and was looking for a receiver when Kacper Leonczuk stripped the ball with a blindside hit, with teammate Kade Darman scooping it up and running it to the end zone for a touchdown.
However, the referees ruled an incompletion on the play, meaning the Acorns’ offense had to gain a first down to prevent the Cougars from getting the ball back one last time. Gemo was proud of the team’s defense as it limited CHS to just 127 yards of total offense, including 29 rushing. Nathan Williams and Aaron Parra combined for 13 tackles to lead the defensive performance.
“The defense swarmed to the ball really well,” Gemo said. “They did a really good job of 11 guys going to the ball. They played hard, played gap sound, and took their run game away from them.”
Live Oak scored on its first possession, a 4-yard TD run from Catano over right guard. The key play of the series came when Williams ran for 24 yards down the right side on a fake punt at midfield. Jordan Fuentes was the workhorse again, rushing 27 times for 104 yards. Time and again when the Acorns needed a short or medium gain, Fuentes came through, rarely going down on first contact.
Catano rushed for 83 yards on 19 carries and Williams had 69 yards on nine carries. Live Oak totaled 275 yards rushing on 57 attempts, one of the highest carry totals in Gemo’s 11 seasons as coach. The Acorns’ ability to run the ball was clearly on display in the third quarter, when they held the ball for nine minutes of possession time compared to Christopher’s three.
“We kind of asserted our will with the run game in the second half,” Gemo said. “We thought at halftime, ‘OK, we’re going to run the ball and make them stop us.’”
Said Yafai: “They had an outstanding running game and all their running backs are big, physical kids. And obviously their quarterback is their best running back of all, he’s a playmaker.”
Trent Cousens’ 10-yard TD run accounted for Live Oak’s second score with 10:17 left. The Cougars scored both of their TDs on long passes, with Gorgulho hooking up with Jaterious Lee for a 35-yard strike in the second quarter and a 49-yard scoring pass in the fourth. Gorgulho’s 49-yard completion was a thing of beauty, splitting two defenders as Lee ran a great route toward the middle of the field.
Even though CHS did connect twice on deep balls, Yafai knows the offense has yet to get into a great rhythm for an entire game. Gorgulho finished 6 of 16 for 98 yards and the run game was rendered moot against Live Oak.
“I’d like to see our passing game start clicking (from a consistency standpoint),” Yafai said.
The Cougars’ Rossi Oteri wreaked havoc against the Live Oak offense in the first half, highlighted by a tackle that went for negative-4 yards when the Acorns had a fourth-and-two from its own 39 early in the second half. Oteri came through and absolutely blew up the Live Oak ball carrier.
“Their No. 7 (Oteri) was giving us all kinds of fits,” Gemo said. “We were able to figure some things out and run the ball well in the second half and straighten some things out with our offensive line.”
The Acorns were able to prevent the playmaking Lee from hurting them at the very end, though it wasn’t easy.
“He’s fast and long and lanky, and we don’t have a guy that tall (to guard him 1 on 1),” Gemo said. “Christopher played a great game, and we look forward to playing them in our league next year.”
Indeed, with CHS joining the BVAL next year, the Acorns-Cougars rivalry will now count as league contests (assuming they’re both in the same division).
Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]