The Atascadero High football team was determined not to get knocked around for a second straight week.
“We aren’t known to be the lesser physical team,” senior linebacker Karson Block said after Arroyo Grande owned the line of scrimmage in last weekend’s win over the Greyhounds. “It kind of made us mad. All week (in practice) we were out there challenging each other, saying ‘We’re not getting pushed around again. This is our league, so let’s take it.’ ”
Message received and delivered.
Block had the game-sealing interception, Marc Martin ran for three scores, and Atascadero dominated the point of attack on both sides of the ball Friday night against North County rival Paso Robles, handing the Bearcats their first defeat of the season, 28-18.
“Both teams really put every bit of their heart out here tonight,” Greyhounds quarterback Tommy Carr said. “It feels great. It just shows that a lot of hard work will pay off.”
Atascadero’s win, coupled with Arroyo Grande’s triumph over San Luis Obispo, means the Greyhounds, Bearcats and Eagles share the PAC 5 championship. By virtue of a preseason draw, Atascadero (8-2, 3-1) will be the league’s No. 1 seed in the CIF-Southern Section Northern Division playoffs followed in order by Paso Robles (9-1, 3-1) and Arroyo Grande (8-2, 3-1).
The Bearcats could have sewn up a sole league title and an undefeated regular season with a victory, but with workhorse running back Christian Erickson sidelined with a lower leg injury, the offense couldn’t keep up the productive pace it had operated at in the first nine games.
Atascadero “came out tough and set the tone in the first half,” said Paso Robles wideout Bailey Gaither, who still managed to have a dynamic game with seven catches for 140 yards and a score, plus a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown. “We were battling back and forth, but they won the ballgame.”
It was a game won in the trenches, as Martin ran for 172 yards on 31 carries as part of a 307-53 rushing advantage for Atascadero.
And then there was Carr, who finished a modest 8-of-14 passing for 90 yards and an interception, but had a 51-yard run on a scoring drive to open the second half. Later in the quarter, he spun away from two defenders and found Martin for a 10-yard gain on third-and-3 to set up Martin’s final TD that made it 28-10.
“That was a senior moment for him,” Atascadero coach Vic Cooper said of his quarterback. “That’s what we’ve expected out of him all year, and I think he probably saved his best for Game 10.”
Gaither took the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown and a two-point conversion made it a 10-point game, but the Bearcats couldn’t get on the board in the fourth quarter, and Block’s interception with 3:05 remaining all but ensured a piece of the PAC 5 title would belong to Atascadero.
“I knew it was going to come down to a big play somewhere,” Block said. “I’m just glad I was in the right spot. There was nothing really spectacular about it; it was just doing our assignments that the coaches set us up to do.”
Paso Robles quarterback Justin Davis finished 16-of-31 passing for 233 yards one touchdown and the interception, and Mark Armstrong, who started in place of Erickson, had 13 rushes for 46 yards.
“They had an excellent gameplan against us,” Bearcats coach Rich Schimke said. “They controlled the trenches on both sides of the ball.”
Schimke said Erickson, who entered Friday with 1,377 yards rushing and 16 scores, will undergo an MRI on Tuesday.
“It was big,” not having Erickson, Gaither said. “But we have faith in our second-string running backs … and if someone goes down, we expect someone to fill in and take his spot.”
The Greyhounds took advantage of a Gaither fumble at the Bearcats’ 20-yard line on the opening drive of the game, scoring on Carr’s 1-yard quarterback sneak.
Martin added a 1-yard rush of his own less than two minutes into the second quarter, and Atascadero had a 14-0 lead.
Paso Robles appeared to finally get on track on the ensuing drive, when Davis found tight end Josh Oliver over the middle and the 6-foot-5 San Jose State commit rumbled for a 39-yard gain down to the Greyhounds’ 21.
But a 15-yard chop block penalty and two holding calls kept the Bearcats going backwards, and they needed senior kicker Bryce Pasky to nail a 48-yard field goal to salvage some points on the drive.
After forcing a three-and-out, Paso Robles got the ball in the hands of its best playmaker, Gaither, and the speedy wideout did what he’s done all season, splitting a double team on a deep post to catch a well-thrown ball by Davis and sprint 74 yards for a touchdown.
Atascadero drove to the Paso Robles’ 10 with time winding down in the first half, as Carr connected with wideout Cooper Kuhnle for completions of 22 and 20 yards to the 9. But the Greyhounds couldn’t expand their lead heading into the locker room, as Carr’s fourth-and-goal pass from the 7 sailed high, and the Bearcats took a knee to go into the break trailing 14-10.
The Atascadero offense got back in gear from the start of the third, with Carr’s 51-yard read option run setting the tone for a second half that ended with the student section sprinting onto the field to celebrate with the Greyhounds.
“I couldn’t have asked for this to be any better,” Block said. “Home against Paso for a league championship, this is great. This is like what you lay in bed dreaming about as a kid. I’m just glad we got the opportunity to come out here and do this.”