In preparations to try and do what nine teams before it failed to accomplish — that is, defeat Paso Robles — Atascadero High football coach Vic Cooper went back and watched film of the rival Bearcats’ narrowest victory.
It didn’t make him feel a whole lot better.
“I was kind of hoping they had been exposed by Arroyo Grande,” Cooper said in reference to Paso Robles’ 28-27 win over the Eagles on Oct. 10, “but the more and more I watched that game, I see (the Bearcats) could have won that game by more.
“There’s not many weak links out there.”
From two Division I receivers and a breakout sophomore running back to a stifling defense and a reliable kicker, Paso Robles is as legitimate as its 9-0 record would indicate, and the Bearcats go for an undefeated regular season and PAC 5 championship tonight in its annual rivalry game at Atascadero.
A win would make Paso Robles the first county team to go undefeated in the regular since Logan Budd-led Morro Bay won its first 11 games in 2007 before falling in the Northwest Division quarterfinals in overtime to Playa del Rey St. Bernard.
“They rank up there as one of the best,” teams in his near two-decade tenure, Bearcats coach Rich Schimke said of his squad. “People have asked me that a lot, and it remains to be seen. This team is pretty well-rounded, and that’s probably its biggest strength.”
The North County tussle always comes in the last week of the regular season and usually brings league championship implications with it, including last year’s 22-21 double overtime Greyhounds win at Paso Robles that clinched an unbeaten PAC 7 title.
Both coaches downplayed last year’s result having an impact on tonight’s matchup, which will start at 7:30 p.m. and be streamed online by Fox Sports PrepZone.
“If they give us a few extra points to start this one because we won the last one, I’ll take it,” Cooper quipped before adding that it’s “a different situation, a different place and a different atmosphere.”
The Bearcats have gotten out to a fast start in every game this season, trailing only once to start the second quarter — 10-7 to Nordhoff in a game Paso Robles came back to win 42-10. In all, Paso Robles has outscored its opponents 102-22 in the first quarter and 258-55 in the first half. Only twice have the Bearcats failed to score in a quarter, with both instances coming in the fourth quarter of blowout wins.
Schimke credited a group of five three-year starters who have helped younger players stay consistently prepared. The five seniors — wide receiver/safety Bailey Gaither, tight end/ linebacker Jonathan Baldwin, defensive end Michael Horne, kicker/punter Bryce Pasky and offensive tackle Jordan Burbank — have made their presence felt on the field, as well.
Gaither, a San Jose State commit, has provided explosive plays on offense, defense and special teams, scoring 18 total touchdowns — 15 receiving, two kick returns and a fumble recovery.
Baldwin has teamed with fellow big-bodied tight end Josh Oliver for a combined 32 catches for 492 yards and six TDs. Horne is the captain of a defense that’s allowed more than 14 points in a quarter just once all season.
Pasky, who was 9 of 18 on field goals as a junior, is 6 of 9 this year with a long of 44 yards and 48 of 52 on extra points. He made all four PATs and both field goals he attempted in last week’s 40-12 win over Righetti, and sent five of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks despite a relentless driving rain.
“We brought him up in the middle of his sophomore year, and all he’s done is get better,” Schimke said of Pasky, who is being looked at by a handful of colleges, mainly Wyoming. “He’s been very valuable to us.”
And Burbank is one of five linemen that’s paved the way for sophomore Christian Erickson, who has burst onto the varsity scene by rushing for 1,377 yards — 7.1 per carry — and 16 scores.
“I wonder where the hell he came from,” Cooper said of Erickson. “Obviously, you watch the freshman games and pay attention to that, but he came out of nowhere as far as I’m concerned and been a workhorse.
“He’s allowed them to be multidimensional because they can spread you out and throw it or they can now be more smash mouth. I knew they’d have great receivers, but I had no idea they’d be able to run with that efficiency.”
The Greyhounds (7-2, 2-1) have been able to run the ball effectively all season, but the passing game has yet to get on track in league play. Junior running back Marc Martin has rushed for 604 yards in three PAC 5 contests, but can be expected to see more stacked fronts defensively, as Atascadero has thrown for just 175 yards in that same span.
“They have a strong offensive line that Vic has doing a lot of different things,” Schimke said. “There’s lots of pulling and lots of moving than in years past. They’re hanging their hat a little differently, but they’re still putting points on the board.”
Defensively, Nick Ducasse is six tackles away from the century mark, fellow senior linebacker Ethan Hicks has 76 stops and junior Jordan Council leads the team with 4.5 sacks.
A win by the Greyhounds would give them a share of the PAC 5 championship and could give them the league’s top seed for the CIF-Southern Section Northern Division playoffs depending on what happens in the Arroyo Grande-San Luis Obispo game.
A win by the Bearcats makes it much clearer who the top dog is in the league and the North County — until next year’s game, that is.
It’s a rivalry lacking any kind of trophy or signature name, but never devoid of significance.
“I’ve spent my entire life in this rivalry, and it means a lot of things to a lot of people,” Cooper said.
“I don’t know if there’s a name for the game. It’s just Paso versus Atascadero. I’ve never heard it called anything else.”