It was 3:45 Friday afternoon when Paso Robles High coach Rich Schimke was in his office watching film against that night’s opponent, PAC 5 foe Arroyo Grande.
Something caught his eye, and he drew a play called Double Slot Z Fly Right on a 3-by-5 index card.
Five hours later, the index card’s red ink came to life on a two-point conversion that will go down as one of the gutsiest calls in Bearcats history.
The touchdown that preceded it will be talked about just as much on both sides of Paso Robles’ thrilling 28-27 come-from-behind victory at War Memorial Stadium at Flamson Middle School in the league opener for both teams.
The Eagles were running out the clock with two minutes to play and a seven-point lead on the Bearcats’ 29-yard-line, when quarterback Sawyer May’s bubble screen pass fell out of Bradley Mickey’s hands and was ruled a fumble.
Paso Robles’ Bailey Gaither scooped the ball up and sprinted 71 yards the other way for the score as half of the Arroyo Grande offense chased him and the rest threw their arms in the air wondering why it was not ruled an incomplete pass.
“It doesn’t matter what I saw, it matters what the call was,” Eagles coach Tom Goossen said. “The call was a backwards pass, and we’ve got to live with it.”
Needing only an extra point to tie, Schimke immediately called his offense on the field to run the newly designed play — a jet sweep to Gaither, who took it off the right side and into the end zone to cap a 17-point second-half comeback.
“I was thinking about (going for two) when we were down 27-20 and we didn’t even have the ball,” said Schimke, whose team overcame four turnovers and 167 rushing yards and three TDs from Arroyo Grande’s Alex Cecchi. “They started moving the ball on us, and I didn’t think we were going to have a chance.”
The chance came on the controversial second-and-9 backward pass, and Gaither made the most of it.
“I had no idea,” it was a fumble, Gaither said. “I just saw the ball on the ground, and thought I’d pick it up and try and make a play.”
He was just as ready for the ensuing conversion.
“I said let’s get it,” said Gaither, who also caught six passes for 115 yards to up his CIF-Southern Section-leading total to 913 receiving yards. “Coach showed faith in me to get it in there, and I just did what I did.”
The Eagles (5-2, 0-1), who had won five straight following a season-opening loss to Lompoc, got the ball back with two minutes to play, but they fumbled a handoff that Paso Robles’ Trevor Torres recovered.
After a three-and-out by the Bearcats, May’s desperation heave from his own 20-yard line was caught by Mickey, but Gaither brought him down at the 45 before he could pitch it back to keep the play alive and time ran out.
“It’s the breaks,” Goossen said. “They got a few breaks at the end, and they put it through. Both teams battled hard, and we came out on the short end. It’s a tough one to swallow, and I’m going to have to live with it.”
Arroyo Grande took command early in the second half thanks to third-quarter touchdown runs of 80 and 1 yards by Cecchi, who gave his team a 27-10 lead when he went up and over the goal line pile of bodies to score with 4:39 left in the third.
Paso Robles sophomore Christian Erickson, who finished with 152 yards rushing on 36 carries, answered on the next drive with a 4-yard run.
But quarterback Justin Davis, who entered the game with zero interceptions against 17 touchdown tosses, was picked off in the end zone by Benny Willkomm on the Bearcats’ next drive. Willkomm had two picks on the day, and Mickey also intercepted Davis in the first half.
“Ninety percent of the time, the team that turns the ball over the most will lose the football game,” said Schimke, whose team also lost a fumble to start the second half. “Thank God we were one of the 10 percent tonight.”
The Eagles blanketed Gaither in coverage the entire first half, and Davis paid dearly for trying to force a ball to the standout senior, when Mickey stepped in front of a deep ball for his fifth interception of the season in the second quarter.
So Paso Robles turned to 6-foot-5 tight end Josh Oliver in the passing game, and the San Jose State commit hauled in a 15-yard touchdown with 1:16 remaining in the half to pull the Bearcats within two, 12-10.
“This is the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Oliver, a senior who finished with four catches for 98 yards. “It was a hard-fought game, and I love it.”
Paso Robles opened the scoring two minutes into the game, taking advantage of a Jordan Harrigan fumble with a 24-yard field goal by Bryce Pasky — one of two field goals on the day for the senior.
The Eagles answered on the ensuing drive, when Mickey took an end-around 67 yards and Cecchi punched it in from 3 yards out on the next play.
Harrigan atoned for the early miscue by breaking off sizeable runs up the middle, rushing for 68 first-half yards, including a 7-yard scamper with 2:50 remaining in the half to put Arroyo Grande ahead 12-3. The senior co-captain finished with 80 yards on 15 carries.
But despite the Eagles’ first-half successes, the miscues proved costly.
Known as one of the top kickers in the state, Arroyo Grande’s Cole Ramey missed both of his first-half PAT attempts wide right, and while Mickey ran in a two-point conversion after Cecchi’s 80-yard third- quarter score, Paso Robles’ risky two-point try at the end was for a lead, not a tie.
“We’re going to come back; we’re going to work hard and try and recover from it,” Goossen said. “It’s going to be tough. We have a bye, so we’ll have a little more time.”
The Bearcats (7-0, 1-0), the top-ranked team in the Southern Section Northern Division, host San Luis Obispo on Friday.
“This is No. 1,” of games he’s played in, Gaither said. “No. 2 would be (last year’s double overtime loss to Atascadero), but we came out on the wrong end of that one.
“This one we won, and it feels great.”