When Christian Erickson burst onto the PAC 5 football scene last fall, Paso Robles had one of its most talented teams in recent memory.
With the 6-foot, 215-pound bruising running back emerging as one of the key cogs, the Bearcats played their way to a 13-2 overall record and captured the program’s first CIF-Southern Section division championship in 14 years.
Despite playing in nine of Paso Robles’ 15 games last fall, Erickson rushed for 1,377 yards and 16 touchdowns. He averaged more than 7 yards per carry and surpassed the 100-yard mark in eight of the nine contests he played.
A leg injury suffered Halloween Night during a 40-12 rout of Righetti ended Erickson’s sophomore season. Had he stayed healthy and continued rushing at the same pace — 153 yards and 1.78 touchdowns per game — Erickson could have finished the season with nearly 2,300 yards and 26 touchdowns.
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“He’s an animal,” Paso Robles senior linebacker Matthew Keller said. “He keeps running. People are on his back and he’s still moving.”
That much was on display Friday night at War Memorial Stadium when the Bearcats opened their 2015 season against a talented Clovis High team.
The Cougars of the Tri-River Athletic Conference earned the No. 1 ranking in The Fresno Bee’s preseason poll, having reached the Central Section Division I semifinals four of the past five years.
Despite a dominant effort from Erickson, who finished with a game-high 167 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 33 carries, Clovis made key plays in the fourth quarter en route to a 27-24 nonconference victory.
“That team right there, they’re ranked No. 1 in the valley for a reason,” Paso Robles coach Rich Schimke said. “They had 18 out of 22 returning starters coming back and we had four.”
The Bearcats (0-1) graduated 2014 Tribune County Player of the Year Bailey Gaither, and his absence was felt in the passing game on Friday. The speedy wide receiver now playing at San Jose State was senior quarterback Justin Davis’ favorite target last season.
Without a downfield threat, Davis was limited to short passes mostly in the flat.
The 6-foot, 185-pound senior finished the game an efficient 15 for 21 passing for 122 yards. Clovis senior Jared Periera intercepted Davis’ 21st and final attempt near the Paso Robles sideline with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Keller pulled in four receptions for 24 yards, and fellow senior tight Evan Espinoza caught four passes for 41 yards.
There were a few times when the offense looked out of sorts, including a five-play stretch in the second quarter when the Bearcats were called for four delay-of-game penalties. It was a typical season opener for both teams in that regard, with 21 penalties being called for a combined 135 yards.
“To be in the game, and with a chance in the fourth quarter, with as many snafus as we had,” Schimke said. “ … It’s still a loss. I feel bad for the kids. They battled.”
Erickson was the epitome of that sentiment.
Running behind an offensive line that lost all-county players Jordan Burbank, Luis Alvarado and tight end Jonathan Baldwin, Erickson fought for every yard he gained. He had scoring runs of 27, 7 and 4 yards, the last touchdown giving Paso Robles a 24-20 lead with 6:48 left in the fourth quarter.
Clovis quarterback Sean Kuenzinger responded by leading the Cougars on a 57-second scoring drive that ended with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Coltin Velasquez. Kuenzinger benefited from a stout offensive line and two dynamic receivers — Velasquez and JJ Wills — on the way to passing for 238 yards and four touchdowns.
Paso Robles stopped the Cougars’ offense on the ensuing possession, forced a punt and sent Erickson back to return the kick with 2:57 remaining.
Again battling for extra yardage near the Bearcats sideline, the ball was knocked loose and recovered by Clovis, putting a sour end to an impressive performance.
“That’s a competitor trying to make a play,” Schimke said. “I ask my guys if they go 100 percent and if they make mistakes, man, all I do is love them.
“That’s all I can ask.”