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Berkeley Wins ACCAL Title Despite Impressive Challenge from El Cerrito

One of many goal line stands for the Gauchos.

BY MATT DURNING //

The El Cerrito Gauchos fell just short of an improbable upset to clinch the conference title Friday night, losing a nail biter to perennial powerhouse Berkeley High, 21-16, in the final game of the regular season.

Both teams entered the contest undefeated in league play and tied atop the ACCAL conference standings. Berkeley was the undeniable favorite, however, having shut out their five other conference opponents by a combined scored of 220-0.

But the young Gaucho squad, led by first year head coach Kenny Kahn, was not intimidated by the larger, stronger, more experienced Berkeley players.

“We might have a small army but that’s who I’m going to war with each and every game,” said Kahn. “They left their hearts on the field tonight – I have nothing but respect for my players.”

El Cerrito’s defense kept things close in the first half, holding Berkeley to just one score and denying the vaunted Yellow Jacket running attack on three of four goal line stands. Their effort was all the more impressive considering the entire half was played inside Gaucho territory with Berkeley dominating time of possession by a 3-to-1 margin.

“Three stops on the goal line – what more can you say,” said Kahn at half time. “Our defensive line just came up and crushed them. They’re keeping us in it.”

With the half time score just 7-0, Coach Kahn praised his players and challenged them to dig deeper.

“Do you see the score?” he asked them. “We are not out of this by any means. Let’s get aggressive, let’s get greedy, let’s get angry. This is why we play this game.”

The Gauchos responded, led again by their defense.

On the second half’s opening drive, El Cerrito captain Malcolm Carson intercepted a pass from Berkeley quarterback Ian Anderson and took it back 29 yards for a score. His touchdown marked the first points scored against Berkeley by any conference opponent this season and, more importantly, provided the Gauchos with a much needed spark.

“That really got our momentum going for the rest of the game,” Carson said.

Less than a minute later, an errant snap on a Berkeley punt attempt allowed El Cerrito to regain possession inside the five-yard line. Three plays after, Gaucho quarterback Andre Williams ran a bootleg to the right and raced untouched into the end zone behind a key block from tight end Lyonel Louis.

Pandemonium ensued on the El Cerrito sideline as Williams’ score gave the Gauchos their first lead of the game, 13-7.

But the jubilation didn’t last long. A strong kickoff return and a series of powerful runs from Ricky Galvin quickly put the Yellow Jackets right back on the Gaucho doorstep.

For three plays, the El Cerrito defense fought to protect their lead. But on 4th-and-1, Galvin broke defiantly through the Gaucho line to tie the game. Berkeley’s kicker hit the extra point to regain the lead, 14-13.

Things started badly for El Cerrito on their next drive. A pair of runs went nowhere and their star quarterback, Williams, limped off the field with a leg injury. On third down and long, sophomore backup quarterback Byron Thomas stepped in and threw a forty-yard pass into double coverage. Wide receiver Demare McElmore made a spectacular, acrobatic catch to keep the Gauchos’ hopes alive.

When El Cerrito failed to gain any yards on their next three plays, Coach Kahn placed his team’s fate in their young kicker, Jose Fuentes, with a 47-yard field goal attempt. Fuentes, who had been inconsistent in warm-ups and missing from much shorter distances, struck the ball perfectly and sent it end over end through the uprights.

“I wasn’t thinking about the kicks I missed in practice,” said Fuentes.  “I was focused. All I wanted to do was kick it and make it good.”

As the referee raised his arms to signal the successful field goal, Fuentes jumped into the air and the Gaucho sideline erupted in cheers. El Cerrito had reclaimed the lead, 16-14.

Fuentes left the field to a hero’s welcome from fellow players and fans alike. The kick was his second longest make of the season and earned him conference “Player of The Week” honors following the game.

“I was happy for myself and happy that I made it for all the fans and all my teammates,” Fuentes said.

But just five minutes from realizing the unthinkable, El Cerrito ran out of gas. Berkeley’s relentless offense penetrated the cracks in the Gaucho armor and drove the ball steadily down the field to the El Cerrito 7-yard line.

“Berkeley did not give up on themselves,” said Coach Kahn after the game.  “They came back and they did what they needed to, so I have to give them credit.”

On 1st-and-goal, Berkeley quarterback Ian Anderson threw a perfect 13-yard fade route to receiver Morris Norrise in the back corner of the end zone, putting Berkeley ahead for good, 21-16, with 1:24 to play.

The Gauchos’ final possession ended in perfect anticlimax when a fumbled snap on 4th-and-4 sealed their fate.

As Berkeley fans rushed the field in celebration, Coach Kahn pulled his disbelieving team together on the field and told them to huddle in close.

“Do not look at this as failure,” he said. “I want you to hold your heads up high and know that you’ve accomplished something big tonight. This loss is only going to help us prepare for what comes next.”

What is next for the Gauchos is the playoffs, an accomplishment no one would have predicted at the start of the season.

“We want a championship,” said Carson, the team captain. “That’s all I can say.”

Because Berkeley and El Cerrito are in different divisions, there is no chance for them to meet again this season. Still, Kahn is already looked forward to next year.

“We showed Berkeley that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Kahn said. “People now know El Cerrito can play with Berkeley. I’m proud of my boys, I’m proud of my coaches. The Gauchos might have lost tonight but we are still on the attack.”

Playoff seeds and first round matchups for both teams will be announced on Sunday.

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