In mid-October, there were questions about the Atascadero High football team.
After all, following a 13-3 loss to Righetti, the Greyhounds sat 4-2 overall and 0-1 in PAC 7 play. It was an uncharacteristic start for a program that had suffered only one other league loss since 2005, leaving many wondering if Atascadero had the makings of a group that could again look like the team to beat in the PAC 7 and make another playoff run.
So much for those questions.
The Greyhounds left no doubt Friday night, routing visiting Arroyo Grande 37-14 at Memorial Stadium, handing the Eagles their first league loss of the year and preserving their hopes to earn a share of the PAC 7 title.
“It’s kind of like we’re back,” Greyhounds running back Sterling Bullard said. “It was kind of like we were in a slump (circa the Righetti loss), I guess you could say. This game is going to bring everybody back. I think we’re going to be a tough team to beat from here on out.”
Righetti, which entered the night 3-0 in league play, will visit Arroyo Grande (7-2, 3-1) in next week’s regular-season finale, while Atascadero (7-2, 3-1) will head to Paso Robles (4-5, 2-2).
Running behind a veteran offensive line led by all-county tackle Dalton Spinas, as well as multi-year starters in center A.J. Castaneda and guard Conner King, Bullard finished with 216 yards and four TDs on 37 carries.
“They were awesome,” Bullard said of his offensive linemen. “Without them, we would’ve lost.”
Still, many of Bullard’s yards came after contact.
“I don’t think you can overestimate the passion and the heart that Sterling Bullard ran with,” Atascadero coach Vic Cooper said. “He had a phenomenal night.”
Bullard’s 14-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-1 play with 5:30 remaining in the third quarter put Atascadero ahead 30-14.
Soon after, Greyhounds defensive back Troy Norris snared his second interception of the game and returned it 34 yards to the Arroyo Grande 11-yard line.
“I just saw the wide receiver go out, did my assignment and got it,” Norris said. “We executed offensively and defensively.”Atascadero running back Tanner Kuhnle then punched in a 3-yard touchdown run with 3:51 remaining in the period to provide the final margin of victory.
Atascadero led 23-14 at halftime, as Bullard had 19 carries for 129 yards and three scores all before heading to the locker room.
“They won this game in the trenches on both sides of the line,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said.
Also at the half, Eagles quarterback Matt McAustin was 9-of-11 passing for 184 yards and a touchdown with an interception.
“Probably for the first time all year, we didn’t let off the gas,” Cooper said of overcoming McAustin’s first-half aerial show.
The Eagles narrowed the lead just before the break on a five-play, 80-yard drive that required only 46 seconds, as McAustin had passes of 32 and 31 yards that led to a Russell Perkins 1-yard touchdown run 12 seconds before intermission.
Bullard had a 31-yard touchdown scamper to put Atascadero up 23-7 just 46 seconds earlier.
Perkins led Arroyo Grande with 68 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts. McAustin finished 13-of-25 passing for 253 yards and a touchdown with the two interceptions. Arroyo Grande, playing without injured star running back Christian Crichton — who was able to play last week — rushed for just 64 yards as a team and committed four turnovers.
“In order for us to compete against elite teams, we have to take care of the ball a little better,” Goossen said. “Certainly, we’re licking our wounds a little bit, but hopefully Friday, we’ll be able to come back and do what we need to do to claim a share of the league championship.”
That’d be just fine by Cooper and Atascadero, as an Arroyo Grande win would prevent Righetti from earning an outright league title at 5-0, opening up the possibility of a three-way 4-1 tie that would be broken by preseason random-chance number drawings.
Paso Robles demolished San Luis Obispo 62-7, preserving its playoff hopes, as well.
“Paso’s always a fun game,” Bullard said of the annual rivalry. “Now, it is even more. We have one loss (in league), so it’s a win we still need.”