The Paso Robles High football team has long been out of the postseason hunt.
Atascadero could rightly have been left out of the playoffs no matter the outcome Friday night.
It wasn’t your usual Bearcats-Greyhounds grudge match at War Memorial Stadium.
And if the diminished stakes didn’t do the trick, the heavy rain certainly kept a chunk of the usual crowd away from what has routinely been the game of the year in the past half-decade.
The downpour also transformed the playing surface into something that looked more like the Venetian lagoon during Carnevale, with players wearing costumes of mud thick enough to obscure their identities.
But none of that mattered to Paso Robles. The Bearcats celebrated their 28-19 victory as heartily as they would have any of the other times the two have met with the PAC 7 title on the line.
A season that started with coaching stipend cuts and pay-for-play proposals and continued with injuries and a game cancellation in Paso Robles has been a trying one.
“It was our Super Bowl,” Bearcats coach Rich Schimke said. “We used to go to the playoffs, and this year has been really tough, not only on the field but trying to raise funds and trying to keep this program afloat. It’s been a really difficult year, and I’m just really proud for the boys to finish it like this.”
David Katz ran for 110 yards and a touchdown, Kevan Garcia ran for 105 yards and a touchdown and quarterback Garrett Nelson accounted for a touchdown through the air and another on the ground as Paso Robles (3-6, 2-4 PAC 7) erased a 13-0 first-quarter deficit.
Deontae Barnes led Atascadero (6-4, 3-3 PAC 7) with 182 rushing yards, two rushing scores and a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but the Greyhounds could not find any alternate sources of offense until it was too late.
Atascadero turned the ball over four times and did not complete a pass until things got desperate late in the fourth quarter.
Atascadero coach Vic Cooper was not looking to use a field that provided only scattered footing at best as a scapegoat.
“If you’re smart, you’re looking at where the footing is good,” Cooper said, “and for the most part, I think our kids did a good job with the muddy field. Deontae ran the ball hard, and the kids played their hearts out. I think we just got a little outcoached tonight.
“There was a lot at stake, but Rich does a great job of rallying his troops when there’s nothing to rally around. He did a great job again tonight. His kids came out and played hard.”
Though the Greyhounds still could have been shut out of the 16-team playoff bracket in the CIF-Southern Section Western Division on a tiebreaker, they still had to beat the Bearcats to have a chance.
A victory would have landed Atascadero in a three-way tie for second place with San Luis Obispo and Righetti.
The Greyhounds would have ended up being the lowest playoff priority of the three based on a preseason numbers draw, and the division would have had to award two at-large berths to the PAC 7 for them to get in.
Atascadero isn’t completely out of it, but it is an even longer shot with the defeat.
“We’ll apply to be at-large as the fourth-place team,” Cooper said. “It’s going to be a rough go as a six-and-four team, but if they give it to us, we’re going to make our best effort to make a run.”
It appeared early on that Atascadero was on its way to that second-place tie. Barnes muffed the opening kickoff return only to escape from a jarring hit at his own 25-yard line and beat the Paso Robles coverage team on a sprint to the end zone.
The Bearcats failed to connect properly on a long snap while trying to punt away from deep in their own territory, and after turning the ball over at their own 1-yard line, Barnes ran in his second score late in the first quarter.
Nelson hit Max Blanton on a short pass for a 48-yard touchdown, and Garcia made a game-changing interception in the end zone and ran in the go-ahead score from 80 yards out on the very next play near the end of the first half.
To open the second half, the Bearcats drained nearly seven minutes off the clock in one possession as Nelson ran in a 4-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal.
Though Barnes struck right back on a 73-yard touchdown run on the next play from scrimmage, Paso Robles maintained the momentum.
Katz’s 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave the Bearcats a two-score lead with 6:51 left.
“The last three games we played, we’ve been dominated up front,” Schimke said, “so, hats off to the offensive line and defense for keeping us in the game.”