BY FERNANDO GALLO//
The first year for Kenny Kahn as head coach at El Cerrito High was marked by comebacks: The Gauchos stormed back from an 0-3 start by winning six of their final seven regular season games, and came from behind in two of those wins with late touchdowns. But the No. 8 Gauchos could not muster another rally on Friday night, losing to the No. 9 Titans of Kennedy High 34-9 in El Cerrito. With the loss, the Gauchos were eliminated from the NCS Division III playoffs.
“When you get to playoffs, you can’t play from behind,” Kahn said. “JFK of Fremont was able to show up and play with intensity, play with tenacity, play aggressively, where there were times where we looked timid.”
The chilly autumn night began strangely as the game was delayed about 30 minutes due to Kennedy arriving late; the Titans had fallen victim to the infamous Bay Area traffic.
But it was the Gauchos who were left out in the cold early, committing a multitude of penalties in the first half. Seven flags went against El Cerrito before halftime, compared to only one infraction for Kennedy. Despite the discrepancy, Kahn wasn’t crying foul at anyone but his own team.
“I’m not gonna’ blame the refs on that one – that’s mental mistakes,” he said.
Running back Jerrell Walker was the hero for the Titans in the first half, notching a key interception on defense seconds before halftime and scoring twice on offense. His first touchdown was a 2-yard run that put the Titans ahead 7-0.
El Cerrito answered with an unlikely touchdown run by quarterback Andre Williams, who turned a broken pass play into a 49-yard scramble. The quarterback ran from one sideline to the other without ever crossing the line of scrimmage, then reversed field yet again and found an open path down the sideline for the score. A missed extra point left the Gauchos trailing 7-6.
Kennedy was able to respond at the end of the half after Walker intercepted a pass with less than 30 seconds remaining. He then made sure the turnover paid off by catching a 38-yard touchdown pass with only 3.4 seconds left on the clock. The pass was nearly intercepted by a Gaucho defender, but the miss left Walker all alone for an easy score.
Although the offense stalled due to turning the ball over and penalties, the Gauchos found themselves trailing only 14-6 at the half. They seemed poised for a comeback in the third quarter when they emerged from the locker room and made a series of strong defensive plays.
“Where (Kennedy) got us initially was on just getting off the ball – just real quick get-offs,” said El Cerrito Defensive Coordinator Dan Shaughnessy. “And we were able to clamp that down by blitzing the backers.”
After forcing the Titans to punt on their first possession of the second half, the Gauchos used two 20-plus yard passes to set them up for the go-ahead score. But the Kennedy defense held, and the Gauchos settled for a 20-yard field goal to draw within 14-9 with 7:07 to go in the third quarter.
Although their defense continued to play well, turnovers doomed the Gauchos late in the game. The momentum swung in Kennedy’s favor when the Gauchos fumbled away a punt return at the end of the third quarter, setting the Titans up in good field position. They quickly took advantage of the turnover, scoring a third touchdown on a 3-yard run by Dane Dismuke to push the lead to 21-9.
The score would change again just three plays later when El Cerrito fumbled on its own 2-yard line. Dismuke added a second touchdown run less than two minutes after his first score and, despite a botched point-after attempt, the lead had swelled to 27-9.
“We’re human and we do make mistakes – unfortunately, those mistakes came out to be costly in the overall outcome of a football game,” Kahn said.
The Titans scored once more in the final minutes on a scramble by quarterback Trevor Damewood with the game already out of reach. That scramble capped a nine-and-a-half minute span in which the Titans racked up 20 unanswered points.
“We wanted to be even more aggressive (in the second half) and it just didn’t work out,” Shaughnessy said. “(Kennedy) didn’t have any situations where there was some guy late to get on the field, or too many guys in the huddle or anything like that.”
El Cerrito finishes the season at 6-5, a one-game improvement over its 5-5 campaign in 2007.
The Titans improve to 6-5 and will advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in school history. The win also avenges a 52-14 first-round blowout the Titans suffered at the hands of the Gauchos in 2006.
“I’m satisfied with the game play of (the seniors), I just wish that these mental mistakes that we make could be minimized,” Kahn said. “We tried to stick with what we had and give everything that we had, but in the end, what can you do? One team comes on your field and shows you up.”
After the game, Kahn talked about his first year walking the sidelines for the Gauchos and the future of his departing seniors, whose high school football careers have come to a close.
“I think that there’s so much to be said about an 0-3 team that ended up making the playoffs, coming in second in the league,” Kahn said. “We have some guys who are going to do some tremendous things in this world… I love these kids to death, and I know that this isn’t the end of the road for the El Cerrito Gauchos, and this is not the end of the road for many of our seniors.”